Monday, December 13, 2010

Rising mercury contamination center stage at Senate

Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, Senate Committee Chair on Environment has issued warning against the rising mercury contamination in the country as he pushed for measures to immediately address its rampant use and emission in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) communities.

In a privilege speech delivered before the Senate yesterday, Zubiri cited studies showing high mercury levels in humans, marine organisms such as fishes and mollusks, and in environmental media such as soil and water. He warned against the dangers posed by mercury to the life of miners, their families and communities living within the affected regions noting that the most vulnerable to the toxins are pregnant women and children.

“We need to re-assess traditional mining practices before seeking new technologies to improve work practices in the ASGM sector,” suggests Zubiri noting that higher gold prices and the rush to get as much gold ahead of the others have forced many small-scale gold miners to use mercury. Traditional gold miners in the Philippines have long been known for their indigenous method of mining in accordance with their customs and with less impact on the environment.

“But because of the use of toxic chemicals, the difference between the gold-rush miners and the traditional small-scale miners are vanishing. More and more are gravitating towards the use of mercury and cyanide,” added Zubiri.

Drawing on the ASGM facts and figures provided by Ban Toxics, Zubiri elaborated on the issues surrounding ASGM in the Philippines, an industry responsible for about 80 percent of the country’s reported annual gold production but is also known as the largest emitter of mercury.

Zubiri also took note of the costs of producing gold, which he said is proving to be very costly not just in terms of expenditures related to the acts of mining and processing but also in terms of the havoc it brings to the environment. “When our food source and people’s health are affected, it is best that we choose caution and go slow on mining. We could not sacrifice our environment and the health of our people for all the glitters of a gold bar.”

Atty. Richard Gutierrez, Executive Director of Ban Toxics said that when evaluating costs of an industry it is critical that not only the economic costs be considered, but costs to the environment, health, and society of producing gold should be internalized as well. “We recognize the contributions of ASGM to rural economies. However, we have not considered the cost of cleaning up mercury pollution, health impacts to communities and miners, monitoring of fish and water, etc. It is important that the national and local governments seriously consider these issues when they look at mercury-use in ASGM.”

Aside from mercury contamination, ASGM has likewise been blamed for its poor social and health performance, being confronted with issues ranging from exploitation of workers, child labor, community exposure to health and environmental hazards, landscape destruction, to aggravation of forest denudation, among others.

Zubiri’s privilege speech was delivered while local and international experts meet in the Philippines for a three-day forum which started last December 07 to seek solutions to eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which will be an important aspect in the development of a global treaty to control mercury. The event was organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with the Philippine government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Ban Toxics.

Zubiri expressed support for the ongoing negotiations for a global pact to prevent mercury use and emissions as he stressed the need to reinforce local and international actions through a ban on production, export, import and strict management of its use and storage.

“Senator Zubiri has taken an important stand against mercury, and we look forward to his increased engagement and championing of the issue in the Senate,” adds Gutierrez. “By 2013 the Senate will be looking at a treaty on mercury for its ratification, and its quick passage in the Philippines takes us a step closer in finally ending the global mercury scourge.”


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