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[GreenYes] Washington Post - gold mining article w/ HG (mercury) reference



Today's Washington Post has another reminder that we need to set limits
on mercury "recycling" (largest end-use of hg captured from USA
recycling programs is apparently gold amalgum, see article). Gold is
ivory. Gold is fur.

Washington Post
January 2, 2007

For S. Africa's Gold Pirates, the Underground Life Holds Risks and
Rewards

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 2, 2007; A10



WELKOM, South Africa -- Thousands of disgruntled mineworkers laid down
their tools one Wednesday night in March 2005, and in the eight days
they were on strike, one of the darkest secrets of South Africa's gold
mining industry spilled into the light.

Thin, thirsty men lacking company ID cards began straggling out of the
shafts, their eyes blinking from the sting of the sun. They were gold
pirates, illegal miners who spend months at a time in conditions so
unforgiving that, when one dies of exhaustion or poisonous mine gases,
his body is simply left in the shaft with a note listing his name and
next of kin.

And though the pirates are notoriously resourceful and violent -- they
have been known to roll a grenade fashioned out of mine explosives at
those who pursue them -- they are dependent on the help of legitimate
miners, who for a cut of the profits smuggle food in and gold out,
police officials say.

The strike cut that lifeline, driving 140 men to the surface and into
the arms of waiting police.

Estimates vary sharply of the value of the gold that pirates steal each
year, but in November the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria
research group, calculated the number at $250 million a year. Police
here in Welkom, in the heart of South Africa's gold fields region, put
the figure even higher.

"They say crime don't pay," said Capt. Neels van der Merwe, the beefy,
shaggy-haired head of South Africa's largest precious-metals police
task force. "But this crime pays."

More than 1,300 arrests have been made related to gold piracy in the
past two years, police officials say. Yet at least several hundred more
of the miners remain at large, willing to endure inhuman conditions for
earnings 10 times higher than what an average South African earns from
legitimate work.

The money is hard to beat in a country where one out of four workers
cannot find a job.

The pirates pay bribes of about $200 to security guards and other
legitimate employees to go down shafts, then stay underground for
months at a time. Without safety equipment, they are vulnerable to
lethal -- and potentially explosive -- mine gases. Smoking cigarettes
is common, in flagrant violation of mine safety rules.

"They can blow up the whole mine and kill a lot of people," said
Michael J. Fryer, an assistant police commissioner who oversees the
national police effort against gold piracy, speaking from his office in
Pretoria. "I think it's a matter of time before we're going to have
something happen down there."

At least as dangerous is mercury, a toxic, silvery liquid that many
pirates use to process the gold down to a form that's easily smuggled
to the surface.

While still underground, many of the pirates put their mined rocks into
a penduka -- a makeshift, hand-cranked tumbler made of a used metal gas
tank -- along with iron balls that crush the material to a sand-like
consistency.

The material is then mixed with mercury, which bonds with the gold to
form a heavy amalgam, allowing most of the surrounding dirt to be
washed away. A few minutes under the intense heat of a blowtorch turns
the amalgam into yellow, semi-processed gold.

On the black market, police say, a one-pound ball, fitting easily in a
man's palm, is worth $6,800.

The risks are worth it, said Samuel Sefuli, 26, a lean, watchful man
who said he has worked as a gold pirate because there are so few other
jobs available. He said his most recent venture into a mine lasted
three months and netted him $11,000 profit.

"Gold is the only way to survive in this country," Sefuli said.

In the shafts, the pirates can buy almost anything, for the right
price, smuggled down by legitimate workers. A loaf of bread or a bottle
of Coca-Cola goes for $7, and a smuggled hamburger can get more than
$100. Many of the transactions are made in stolen gold, though payment
with rolls of cash is common as well. One pirate was arrested with
nearly $30,000 in cash in his pocket.

The history of the gold industry is inextricable from that of South
Africa. The discovery of the world's richest gold reefs in the 1880s
drove a mad land rush toward Johannesburg, known as the "City of Gold."
The mines' need for cheap, plentiful labor underpinned the racial laws
that eventually became apartheid.

Gold pirates gained a foothold in the 1990s, at about the time that
crime surged throughout South Africa, which has some of the highest
rates of rape and murder in the world. Now the business is run by
sophisticated syndicates.

One 41-year-old miner, who said that the gold pirates are so violent
that publishing his name would endanger his safety, said mine employees
leave behind tools and power up battery-operated lights for the gold
pirates. He said legal and illegal miners often work side by side.

"There is no secret there underground," the miner said. "Sometimes they
are there with us, and you can't say anything because your life will be
in danger."

The stolen gold, some of which is smuggled to the surface in dirt
rather than semi-processed metal, also fuels an illicit smelting
industry. In a grubby, garbage-strewn township on the outskirts of
Welkom, low concrete dormitories house the world's largest illegal
smelting operation, according to police officials.

Regular raids by police have done little to control what is a bustling
local industry amid severe, entrenched poverty. Residents say the
processing and selling of illicit gold is seen as, at worst, a minor
infraction.

"It's a crime but not a violent crime," said David Mphailane, 37, a
resident. "We don't kill people."

The syndicates that run the industry are unquestionably dangerous and
resilient.

A raid on the illegal smelting operation Dec. 7 yielded a few pieces of
carpet laden with gold dust, a grocery bag of reddish-brown,
gold-bearing dirt, five small bags of marijuana and a single
hand-cranked gold-processing machine. Not a single pirate was arrested.

Residents of the township said informants within the police force
tipped off smelters the night before the raid, giving them ample time
to hide evidence.

"You can go back this afternoon and get the gold dust again," van der
Merwe said grimly after the raid. "It will never stop."


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