This is what I like to call our “miracle” mercury recapturing machine.
Using simple, low-cost retorts like the one pictured here, Pure Earth has been able to reduce the amount of toxic mercury released into the atmosphere by an estimated 4,000 kg. This is just in 2010 alone, from our work in one mercury hotspot – Indonesia.
The mountains of Central Kalimantan in Indonesia contain as much gold as the United States. Artisanal gold mining is the main source of income here, and also one of the main sources of toxic mercury in the world.
Over the past two years, Pure Earth has been working with local Indonesian NGO Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta (YTS) to distribute over 50 low-cost mercury retorts, which can recapture as much as 97% of the mercury released by miners and gold shop owners to extract gold from ore.
Pure Earth program manager Meredith Block was recently in Indonesia and this is what she told me:
We spent one week traveling through the region on foot and by car to reach villages and mining camps in five districts. The mountains are full of gold and people are spread out over a huge area with pockets of gold mining in very remote regions.
In each place we visited, we were delighted to find that many miners and gold shop owners were using the equipment we distributed earlier, and we made plans to fix retorts that were not working or installed properly.
The miners told us they were happy that the retorts were saving them money since they used to spend about US$60 a kilo on mercury. Now they are able to reuse the recaptured mercury. This economic incentive is important because artisanal gold mining is their main source of income and convincing them to stop mining would have been difficult. The retorts offer a fast solution to reducing mercury. And the villagers were all starting to notice the results – cleaner air. They were feeling healthier.
* Note: The recovery of 10,000 kg of mercury has an economic value of about US$83,333 (Rp. 7.5 billion)
Our visit also took us into urban areas and towns where gold shops are concentrated. This is where miners take their gold and ore to be sold. Mercury released by the gold shops pose a bigger danger because they are located in towns with bigger populations and near markets where food can be easily contaminated with toxic mercury fumes. So I was glad to find that at every gold shop I visited, there was at least an inch layer of mercury in the retorts they were using. It was clear that the retorts were working, and they could see it too.
Because of this measurable success, we will be expanding our work to reach more villages and towns. We will be working to convince the hold-outs to use retorts their neighbors are already using, and to reach areas we have not visited before to raise awareness about the dangers of mercury poisoning and the availability of these retorts. Most of all, we were encouraged by requests for retorts that were coming our way unsolicited, which means word of mouth is spreading.