Mercury Reduction in Xinjiang’s Gold Mines: Fieldnotes from an Eco-entrepreneur

January 5, 2014A Uyghur child in the Urumqi bazar – children are most impacted by mercury pollution. Photo by Kristina Shafer

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASM) continues to be a major user of metallic mercury worldwide. During the past six months the National Geographic Air and Water Fund for China has supported an applied research project with Dr. Lanhai Li based at the Xinjiang Institute of Geography and Ecology (a Chinese Academy of Sciences institute) to test a novel technique to extract gold without using mercury. In this article, the eco-entrepreneur Kristina Shafer shares her experiences of the field visit to Xinjiang to test the technique at a gold mine near the capital Urumqi. Ms. Shafer is the executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Mining (a.k.a Artminers) that has worked with metal technologist David Plath and his patented CleanGold method in various parts of the world. So far, the economic incentives to move from mercury to other techniques have been scant. However, the signing of the Minamata Convenetion  in October 2013 provides an opportunity to revisit such innovative techniques for reducing pollution while providing livelihoods from mining in some of the most remote locations.

Guest article by Kristina Shafer

Our first surprise when we arrived in Urumqi was the public stir we created. Our work has taken us to remote places, but we’d never stopped people on the street in open-mouthed shock at seeing our Western features.

In the far-flung, northwestern province of Xinjiang, China, Urumqi is an ancient/modern paradox. With a population of 3.2 million, its center is like Times Square on steroids with upscale malls, minarets, baijiu and bazaars. Here, everyone has smart phones, texts incessantly and wifi is everywhere, but people still wash clothes by hand. Ice, vacuum cleaners, and other conveniences haven’t arrived, but infomercials have. The only english speaking TV program we saw (and often we needed subtitles) was a reality show about redneck gator hunters in the deep Southern US.

Cranes jammed the skyline while high-rise construction workers acrobatically assembled scaffolding by hand to install stories at breakneck speed.

Southeast of the city is one of the largest wind farms in the world. We drove along miles upon miles of turbines on the way to a Buddhist version of Machu Picchu at Turpan (video link to come). It was over 100 degrees the day we hiked its hills, yet it’s below sea level.

We would soon learn that no Americans involved with mining had ever been granted entry to the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture.

Yili is where we went to introduce Cleangold, a toxin-free fine gold mining technology invented by US scientist David Plath.

With funding from National Geographic, our NGO Artminers came to show miners how to reduce environmental threats to the watershed habitat of the endangered Snow Leopard.

At the Institute in Urumqi, in preparation for our field work, we soon discovered that we wouldn’t be doing our usual work with artisanal or small scale gold miners dependent on mercury. Instead, we would be visiting a modern, state-run gold mine, which was already using every state-of-the-art technology available—from centrifuges and flotation cells, to bacterial processes and cyanide.

Big, rich industrial mines weren’t part of our mission. The main focus of our work is with miners at the bottom of the supply chain. However, communities impacted by mining are at the bottom of the supply chain, including the wildlife. Cleangold had never gone up against cyanide before, widely regarded as the ultimate chemical for extracting gold dust from rocks. This gave us a chance to concentrate and examine gold being lost by the final cyanide-based recovery process used on the concentrates from their centrifuges and flotation.

Oregon, our home state, shares the same latitude as Yili, with similar agriculture and natural resources, but that’s where any similarities end.

The Axi mine was a ten-hour drive from Urumqi over the jagged face of the Tian Shan mountains, which dropped into a lush, Central Asian wonderland.

The mountain highway was modern, and our driver attacked it with his SUV like an avatar in a video game without real lives at stake, recklessly spinning out his back wheels on hairpin turns in the wake of mini landslides while our guides napped in the back. At the summit, when we pulled over for a break, I was stunned by all the trash the previous tourists had left behind.

On our descent, soft, green hills embraced us as Kazakh cowboys tended cattle, farmers worked the fields, and, as it was late August, harvest was in full swing—melons, grapes, nuts, raisins, and honey–it was a good time to visit. (video link to come)

When we finally arrived at the Axi mine, after a quick cup of tea and questions from the director, we were led to their lab, where buckets of tailings from various processes were offered with their young techs in attendance. (video link to come)

This is where we always start with Cleangold—on the tailings (refuse ore after all possible gold has been recovered). If Cleangold can recover gold that got past their methods, we’d capture their interest. We did. David asked if they’d ever examined their gold under a microscope, and the answer was no. We were also able to ascertain that despite being run through centrifuges, flotation cells and cyanide, the mine was still losing about two percent of its gold, worth $12,000 US per day.

One of the techs who studied in the US and could speak a little English invited us to spend the night at their guest quarters, to run more experiments and to take a formal tour of the mine the next day. Oh, yes, we said!

Absolutely not, said our guides. We had to leave immediately for our designated hotel three hours away or we’d all be in big trouble. We arranged for more concentrates to be shipped to the lab in Urumqi, then we tore out of there.

We weren’t allowed to shoot photos at the mine, but suffice it to say it was a town-sized hole in the ground with all the modern processing facilities typically attached with same. Apart from a trip to an ore-crushing operation to collect magnetite required for the Cleangold process, our field work was completed.

Back at the Institute’s lab in Urumqi, David ran bench extractions on the shipped samples and enjoyed full access to sophisticated crushers, microscopes with digital cameras, grad students and assayers. Under the microscope, David discovered coatings on the micron gold he recovered which likely interfered with the cyanide recovery.

As we shared results with our partners, more mine directors were sent in for demonstrations, and all seemed impressed with our results. David estimated the return on investment at Axi for a scaled-up system was less than a week. Assay results on the sample recovered by Cleangold revealed 790 grams of gold per ton.

Around the world it’s widely perceived that the Chinese care more about industry than the environment. If this is true, why were we brought in? Clearly there was genuine concern and a willingness to engage.

In the past couple of years, some in the artisanal and small scale gold mining community have suggested introducing cyanide to small miners as an alternative to mercury since it decomposes in sunlight and does not bioaccumulate in the environment like mercury. Yet such an approach would merely trade one toxin for another at different time scales. Returning home, we were heartened to learn that lab results had provided positive feedback from the miners. The translation provided by email to us revealed that the miners noted that they were interested in further using this technology because the method is not complex and easy to implement; water consumption is minimal — an important concern in an arid location; the efficiency of mining gold is high; pollution is palpably reduced and less labor is required. Despite all the negativity one often hears about Chinese inertia on environmental concerns, we found the responsiveness of the miners to be remarkably positive. This was particularly heartening in the “Wild West” of China that has often been neglected by mainstream investors. Smart technologies have the potential to provide environmentally sound economic development in this remote but remarkable region.

In Changing Planet

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New miner sluices for good gold

Analytic chemist turned surfer invents a way to recover fine particles without the toxins

-Anne Marie DiStefano for The Portland Tribune

Insults from colleagues, malaria shots and children with mercury poisoning were not part of David Plath's plan when he left a job at Portland General Electric to move to Lincoln City. He just wanted to surf.

Several years later, when Portlander Kristina Shafer headed out to Lincoln City for the day, she didn't know that odysseys to Nome, Ghana and Suriname would follow.

Plath was a college friend of Shafer's sister. Shafer, who worked in advertising, was on a business trip to the coast, so she met up with Plath for a game of golf. She asked him about an invention he had patented. It had 'something to do with gold mining,' her sister had told her. When he explained the Cleangold sluice to her, she admits, 'I had no idea what he was talking about.'

She did know enough about him to know he wasn't a wingnut. Plath has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in oceanography from Oregon State University. He worked for the Bonneville Power Administration, in its environmental lab, starting in 1979, and later for Portland General Electric.

Only a dyed-in-the-wool scientist would reminisce about the 1980s by saying, 'It was a really fascinating time to be an analytical chemist.'

The climate changed, though - utilities started to be run by bankers instead of by electrical engineers. In 1993, Plath moved to the beach: 'You get to a point in your life,' he says, 'you kind of think, well, I'm not really about just accumulating things.'

For a while Plath worked on an idea for an artificial reef that could be deployed to improve surfing conditions temporarily, say, for the duration of a surf contest. It didn't work out. It did lead to prototypes for something completely different.

Using Oregon beaches as a laboratory, Plath developed a new way to separate fine metallic particles out of sand and dirt. His invention is cheap, simple and, most important, a chemical-free way to collect gold.

He did not, however, strike it rich. Most of us associate gold with wealth. We think of nuggets rolling in creek beds, or fat veins running through solid rock. The reality of gold mining in the modern world, though, is nothing like a Yosemite Sam cartoon. The gold in them thar hills is in a fine powder, and large-scale industrial mining operations extract it systematically by processing ton after ton of ore, and using cyanide to leech out the precious metal.

Cyanide, of course, is a dangerous thing. It's practically synonymous with poison. It's closely regulated and carefully contained, but accidents do happen, such as the massive cyanide spill in Romania in 2000.

Talk of chemical spills struck a nerve with Shafer. During a stint as a radio news reporter, she had covered a metam sodium (pesticide) spill in the Sacramento River.

She also had worked in marketing and publicity, and while researching an advertising brochure for a jeweler, she had inadvertently learned about the human rights abuses surrounding gold mining in Africa.

'It was really serendipitous to meet David and be told about his invention,' she says. Suspicious consumers demur

It was serendipitous for both of them. Plath had been trying to get industrial mining companies interested in his technological breakthrough, to be met with nothing but what he diplomatically terms 'impolite turn-downs.'

Nor did recreational miners - folks who spend their vacations prospecting and panning for gold - take the bait.

Plath didn't realize that he was entering a crowded field full of suspicious consumers: 'First they said I was lying, then they said I was an idiot,' he recalls. 'The patent files are full of these great miracle mystery machines.'

When Plath's sluice is plunked down in front of you, your first thought will probably be, 'Where's the rest of it?' It looks like three sides of an aluminum cube, with a bright blue lining thin enough that it could have been cut from a plastic tarp. And that's it. A plastic scraper, a black panning dish and water are the only other equipment.

Shafer was intrigued, though, and she figured Plath could use someone with some sales experience. It was her research that turned Cleangold from a business proposition into a mission. Plath says, 'She was the one, actually, that started discovering the entire world of artisanal mining, which I was completely unfamiliar with.'

Millions are miners

At least 13 million people worldwide, from more than 30 developing countries, engage in artisanal and small-scale mining, according to Communities and Small-Scale Mining, an advocacy group affiliated with the World Bank.

These are subsistence miners, collecting particles of gold out of streambeds, in many cases making barely enough to live. They don't use cyanide; instead, they use mercury, and, unlike industrial miners, they are releasing all their byproducts directly into the environment. This is taking place all over the world, in Africa, South America, Asia and Central Europe.

Mercury is toxic. Exposure to mercury can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and it's especially harmful to children. Released into waterways, mercury accumulates in the bodies of fish, rendering them inedible. Shafer and Plath realized that they had something in their hands that could reduce the spread of mercury contamination - potentially, on a global scale.

They went to Nome, Alaska, to test the Cleangold sluice in the gold-rich ground there, with impressive results. Shafer, who continues to live in Portland, formed Artminers, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about sustainable mining practices.

A representative from Communities and Small-Scale Mining became interested in the project, and invited Plath and Shafer to the organization's annual conference in Ghana in 2003.

That led to a contact at the University of British Columbia, where the invention was tested (results have not been officially released) and to a friendship with environmental journalist Rachael van der Kooye, who is based in Suriname, a small country tucked into a northern corner of Brazil. Van der Kooye introduced Cleangold to Rickford Vieira, a mining engineer and the pollution abatement coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund in Suriname.

Is fair trade jewelry on way?

A grant from World Bank's Development Marketplace fund allowed Plath and Shafer to make two trips to Suriname. By this time they also had spent a fair amount of their own money. Shafer says of Cleangold, 'If it turned out to not be everything that David said that it was, at least I wouldn't feel like I wasted my money, because my heart was in the right place.'

For the most part, though, things went well in Suriname. In their report to the World Bank, they list their accomplishments to date as exceeding expectations. They were able to test their product in the field, while at the same time training indigenous miners on its use. They will return again this November.

There is progress on other fronts, as well. As fair trade coffee and fair trade chocolate become familiar terms, there's increased consumer interest in the idea of fair trade jewelry. Plath and Shafer have been nominated for an award from the Tech Museum of Innovation, a hands-on museum of science and technology in San Jose, Calif.

At last, the world is starting to take notice of Cleangold. And it has become an adventure that could lead anywhere in the world - hopefully, somewhere with good surfing. (