From poison pills to river spills: cyanide still looking for perfect record

A Yukon miner used to swim in cyanide-laced tailing ponds near Whitehorse to prove it was safe. The abandoned Viceroy and Mount Nansen mines currently leak cyanide.

A Yukon miner used to swim in cyanide-laced tailing ponds near Whitehorse to prove it was safe.

The abandoned Viceroy and Mount Nansen mines currently leak cyanide into nearby river systems because their closures were botched. But the reclaimed Brewery Creek mine near Dawson City doesn’t leak, and is touted as a successful example of how the controversial chemical can be used safely in mining.

These were just some of the tidbits shared by mining veterans at a recent workshop on cyanide in mining held by the Energy, Mines and Resources Department at the High Country Inn in Whitehorse.

“The public is going to be concerned about what’s dangerous to their health,” said Dirk van Zyl, an expert on cyanide mining from the University of British Columbia who led the workshop.

“It’s a reaction,” said van Zyl. “And I don’t mind people having a reaction where they say ‘Cyanide, my God, we’ve never had that in our community and suddenly we’re bringing it to the community.’

“But to say all mining uses cyanide badly is really improper.”

About a dozen people attended the meeting. Van Zyl was peppered with questions from regulators, environmentalists and potential mine developers who, even as people familiar with the chemical, were unsure on some of the finer points of how to use it properly.

Cyanide reduces the price of separating gold from waste rock. Instead of grinding rocks in a mill, ore is doused in cyanide over huge heap-leach pads, and then a chemical reaction fuses the gold and cyanide together. The gold is removed from the toxic mix in another process, and a sizable amount of cyanide is continuously reused in the process.

Birds and people should stay away from the ponds, said van Zyl. But not all cyanide is dangerous. Free molecules of cyanide are what kills, while cyanide alloyed to other elements in larger compounds is relatively safe.

“You might be able to drink it,” said van Zyl, referring to stable cyanide compounds. “But I’d be hard-pressed.”

The uncertainty about cyanide’s safety is endemic to its use in mining.

After all, we’re talking about a chemical that was used in the suicides of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Jim Jones’ Jamestown cult.

Its cultural notoriety, as well as some major mining disasters, have brought cyanide under the spotlight. And in turn, a counterpunch by the mining industry has been launched in the last decade to highlight cyanide’s safe use.

Let’s start with the bad news.

The biggest headline in recent years was the Baia Mare spill in Romania in January 2000. A faulty tailings pond wall and bad weather caused the leak of 50 to 100 tonnes of cyanide into several rivers, including the Danube, and finally into the Black Sea.

The spill killed thousands of fish in three Eastern European countries. It sparked mass protests in Baia Mare. The operation, which consisted of sifting through old tailings for gold, was only six months old and touted as an exemplar of public safety.

A report by the Mineral Policy Centre found major regulatory problems in the mine’s approval. Miningwatch Canada linked the spill to the Yukon’s leaky Ketza, Viceroy and Mount Nansen mines, the last of which is still being monitored by the Yukon government with funds from Ottawa.

The European Union parliament recently passed a resolution proposing to ban all cyanide in mining. A campaign by the Observatory of Mining Conflicts of Latin America is also trying to ban cyanide mining in that continent.

In the last decade, the mining industry responded with a campaign of its own.

The International Cyanide Management Code, created in 2005, is the brainchild of Paul W. Bateman, a mining industry consultant who heads Klein & Saks Group in Washington, DC. A former staffer to President Richard Nixon, he’s served in multiple Republicans administrations until he created the management code five years ago to improve cyanide use in mining.

“Spills and other incidents involving cyanide solutions at gold mines such as the January 2000 incident at a Romanian gold mine demonstrated to the gold mining industry, governments and the public that better management of cyanide was needed, particularly at operations with limited experience or in countries lacking adequate regulatory programs,” says the code’s website.

The code certifies mines that follow the rules. It lists dozens of gold mining companies, cyanide producers and cyanide transporters, and shares environmental audits of their operations.

For example, Goldcorp, a Vancouver-based gold company, has several certified mines. But some, like its San Martin mine in Honduras, are not certified.

“(The code) is really setting the pack apart right now,” said van Zyl.

The code is voluntary, however, and it doesn’t cover all mining companies.

Boosters will say the code has prevented another Baia Mare from happening.

But Norm Greenwald, vice-president of the International Cyanide Management Institute, told in September 2008 that “it is impossible to say whether (the reduction in spills) is due to the code, society’s growing environmental awareness or simply good fortune.”

Other monitoring groups have much finer requirements when it comes to determining a cyanide spill is dangerous. The Rainforest Information Centre determined that since 1997 there has been about three spill incidents a year, according to the same article.

The Bogoso mine in Ghana, owned by Golden Star, a management code signatory, has had two spills in recent years. One happened in 2004, and another occurred in 2006, which killed fish in nearby rivers and caused illnesses in the village of Dumase, said the article.

Despite spills and the accompanying bad press, cyanide remains a chemical of choice for gold miners.

Van Zyl estimates there are hundreds of mines using cyanide around the world.

“But I can’t say whether it’s 500 or 900,” he said.

Canada has around 100 gold mines using cyanide, he said. The United States has around 20 or 30.

“Then you’ve got smaller mines in China that we don’t even know about.”

Even the gold mining industry admits that not all cyanide is used safely. But it doesn’t seem to be wavering in its belief that near-total safety can be achieved if we stick with cyanide.

In that respect, Van Zyl’s defence of cyanide comes down to working with the devil we know, rather than the devil we don’t.

“Cyanide has been used for the last 110 years in gold mining,” he said. “We understand the chemistry of cyanide, we understand the environmental impacts of cyanide, we understand the health impacts of cyanide, we understand the safe handling of cyanide.”

“Let’s say tomorrow somebody comes up and says we found a new chemical. A new chemical to replace cyanide. The first question I’d ask is what is the environmental impact of the chemical. And then we are moving away from the chemical we know.”

But, as recent spills attest, the right safety code has not been applied everywhere yet.

And van Zyl, who’s tenured in several universities and been a mining consultant during the last three decades, admitted in his workshop that every mine site is unique.

That’s especially true during reclamation, where a specific set of geographical conditions will determine whether buried cyanide sites will leak.

“It can take five to 10 years after closure before you understand what’s happening,” he said.

Contact James Munson at

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