North of Aidarken (a Kyrgyzstan town), smokestacks rise above hillsides that are streaked in red. Men wearing headlamps work underground breaking down rocks with sledgehammers, while men wear them as headlamps. They are mining cinnabar ore, the mineral processed into mercury — a gleaming, silver-colored metal with dangerous properties.
The Aidarken mine is one of the on Earth where new mercury is legally extracted for the international market. Since 2013, 135 countries have signed the Minamata Convention, a global agreement that bans new mercury production and aims to phase out most international trade in the metal.
Kyrgyzstan isn’t one, though it regards mining as a keystone of its economic foundation. Researchers warn that mercury poses a risk to health not only for those living near mines but also around the globe.
Makhmud Isirayilov (head of a laboratory near the Health Ministry) stated that “I believe mercury pollution of environment is not just our problem.” This is a global problem.
Kyrgyzstan does not have the Minamata Convention. It is a global agreement that prohibits new mercury production.
International market is a lucrative one
Aidarken is a town with approximately 10,000 inhabitants. It was established in 1941, when Kyrgyzstan, then a part of the Soviet Union, started mercury mining. The state-owned plant continued to produce mercury for export to China (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine), India, France, and the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although mercury has seen a decline in market share since the Minamata Convention’s establishment, it remains a valuable commodity. $38-million (€32-million) industry worldwide and a significant driver of the regional economy in Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished Batken province, where per capita production is about 2.5% lower than the national average.
It is used to manufacture certain types of lamps, electric equipment, and batteries. The metal is also a key component in small-scale and artisanal gold mining, mainly in South America, and sub-Saharan Africa.
2015 global inventoryThese activities emit about 2,500 metric tonnes of mercury each year into the atmosphere. Illegal mercury miningThere is also a vibrant black market for drugs, even in countries which have signed onto Minamata Convention. It is particularly harmful in the Amazon.
Wide-reaching health effects
Mercury can damageIt can cause damage to the nervous, digestive, immune, and reproductive systems. Artisanal miners of goldMercury vapors can be harmful to people who are exposed. Mercury can travel long distances to its source and can contaminate the soil, as well as the Arctic, once it has entered the global supply chain.
In Aidarken, a 2013 sampling conducted by the Health Ministry found that springs around tailing dumps from the mine had concentrations of mercury that were 400 times the allowable limit. Mercury levels in fresh potatoes from Eshme, a village near the mine, was twice that recommended.
Refinery processes also release mercury vapor into the atmosphere. Isirayilov stated that even though the government installed filters at Aidarken in 1990 to capture the emissions, some pollution is still being emitted. Oleg Pecheniuk is an environmental researcher and chair of Kyrgyz NGO Independent Ecological Expertise.
Pecheniuk stated that there are a lot of mercury-contaminated sites, both man-made and natural. “Systemic monitoring will be necessary to understand the scope and work required.
Political Action is on the ice
International efforts to address the problem have met with resistance. UN led project in 2013 was established to remove mercury-contaminated areas from Aidarken, collect data on health and aid transition away from mercury mining.
After the 2017 conclusion, the UN’s own assessment concluded that the project had not had any impact on mercury exposure or contamination. This was due to mine officials refusing to cooperate with the UN and the lack of consensus among governments over the end of production. Interview requests were declined by the mine management.
Research has shown that the waste from the mine is polluting our environment and posing health threats to the local communities
After initial pressure from environmental activists, lawmakers and international organizations, the movement to allow Kyrgyzstan into the Minamata Convention has been stalled.
Rada Tumanbaeva (a member of parliament) announced in 2019 that a draft law to approve the country’s accession was imminent. However, no proposal was ever made. Workers at the plant staged a strike in protest of the decision to join the convention that year, fearing they would lose work. The government has remained silent on the matter since then.
Mercury production has increased
The mercury industry is making a comeback. Due to declining demand and the aging of its equipment, the plant has accumulated significant debt in recent years. After numerous mine shafts flooding in 2009, production has slowed down to a trickle.
Production resumed in 2018, and in August 2018 the government announced that it had reached a deal with Duvatash LLC. Turkish investor will be granted a share of the venture. This will allow for new equipment to be funded, increase production, and create 1,000 new jobs.
Global opposition to mining is growing as Kyrgyzstan doubles its mercury imports. Indigenous people have called for an end to copper mining in the Amazon, while protests erupted in Serbia in September over plans to open a lithium mine. In Kyrgyzstan activists were able to pass a ban on the mining of new uranium in 2019.
This shift in sentiment could still reach Aidarken, as more people recognize the dangers mercury poses.
Isirayilov, from the Health Ministry, said dozens of people from Aidarken — mainly metallurgical plant workers — had to be treated for mercury poisoning in the 1980s, after experiencing trembling hands and tooth loss. He has not experienced such problems in the past, but he discovered elevated levels of mercury among a broad range of workers at both the mine and plant in a 2015 survey of more than 200 people.
Saidullah Shektybaev, aged 69, was a miner in Aidarken over 28 years. He recalls a colleague who was poisoned by mercury and stated that the mining benefits were not worth it.
Shektybaev suggested that they could construct a cement plant or another factory here. “It doesn’t have to contain mercury.”
Holly Young edited the article