Minnamata Convention on contaminated sites in Northland
press release: Friends of the Earth NZ
Minnamata Convention on mercury and mining contaminated sites in Northland.
On the 19 october 2013 the NZgovt joined 140 other countries in signing the Minnamata Convention on Mercury - a binding international agreement to stop the global contamination of this metal. In a press release Minister for Environment Amy Adams said
"The Minnamata Convention is an important milestone in the control of mercury in the environment."
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is named after a city in Japan where (in the 1950s) hundreds died as a result of eating fish from the local harbour when it was contaminated with mercury. Mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts including brain and neurological damage especially among the young. Victims can suffer memory loss, language impairment and many other well documented problems.
The Convention provides controls and reductions across the range of processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. It addresses the direct mining of mercury, and emissions from certain industrial activities like gold mining and sets guidelines for dealing with contaminated sites.
The booming price of gold in recent years has triggered a significant growth in small-scale mining where mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock.
Emissions and releases from such operations and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution world-wide.
However a recent study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) named the Global Mercury Assessment 2013, indicates that more than 50% of NZ's total mercury emissions are from large scale industrial mining.
The NZ Ministry for the Environment says on their website that:
"there is insufficient information to quantify the amount of mercury released from mining operations within New Zealand."
Despite this, in the last year most of NZs major mercury sites have had minerals permits issued over them.
These sites are:
(1) Puhipuhi (which has multiple documented mercury sites including the old mine and processing plant with - 85 tonnes estimated ore in situ). De Greys Mining have permits over this area.
(2)Puketi forest ( prospected in the 80s) and
(2) Huia (estimated at more than 250 tonnes of ore in situ)
A proposal to mine the
Huia and Puketi deposits for mercury in 1987 did not go
ahead solely due to a large drop in world mercury prices .
These licences were granted to ex-Mayor of the Far North Wayne Brown's company (Tai Tokerau Minerals).
Minnamata Convention all these sites must be assessed as
contaminated or potentially contaminated as they have all
been subject to drilling, digging etc in the past.
There is a clearly documented history of mercury poisoning of people associated with the Puhipuhi mercury mines during WW2. Since then contaminated material has been wide spread in the locality - it has even been used on road making, with serious results.
Mercury is a highly toxic substance, which has serious effects on human health and on the environment. It can cause permanent damage to the nervous system and can also accumulate in the food chain. Consuming food with mercury in it is a major source of exposure to mercury for people.
The real benefit of the Convention will be for people who live near or downstream from contaminated sites - as it provides a model for making central and local government accountable for their actions and decisions regarding mining in toxic mercury hotspots.
Paul Tucker, co;director Friends of the Earth NZ