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Cyanide & Gold:
Is a US Mining Company Poisoning the People of Honduras?

Jesse Barnes, MIT '02 (Eloranta Fellow, Summer 2002)
Daniel Moss (Grassroots International)

7 p.m., Monday, December 2, 2002
in MIT Room 4-237

This event is co-sponsored with the MIT History Faculty. It is part of our "It's Our Planet" series, in which members of the MIT community report on research, activism, or volunteer work they have done across the hemisphere.

Leach-heap mining After graduating from MIT this year, JESSE BARNES spent the summer in the village of El Porvenir, in Honduras. El Porvenir is across a river from one of the largest gold mines in Honduras, owned by a US mining company. To retrieve gold cheaply and profitably, the company uses cyanide solution to leach the precious metal out of the ore. Is this form of mining poisoning the people and the environment? Jesse's project aims to find out; and to empower the people of El Porvenir so that they can continue to monitor the quality of their environment. Commenting on Jesse's presentation will be DANIEL MOSS, Development Director at Grassroots International and former Program Officer for Latin America at Oxfam. Also an MIT alumnus, Daniel has helped to organize communities in Peru, El Salvador, the United States, and elsewhere. He will discuss Jesse's project in the context of what various international agencies & development NGOs do in Latin America.

Photograph by Dan Restuccia

For more information:

  • An article by Robert McClure and Andrew Schneider observes that while cyanide is not new to the mining business, it is being used more aggressively than ever before:

    The leaching technique was used in small measure by miners in the early 1900s to draw gold and copper out of ore so low in mineral content that large-scale operators would have tossed it out as waste.

    In the old days, leaching was done by misting cyanide over a barrel or large vat filled with crushed ore. The cyanide dissolved microscopic specks of gold from the rock, much as water dissolves sugar. As gold soared to $850 an ounce in the early 1980s, mining companies brought back the leaching technique in a big way, wringing more gold from long-closed mines and developing new ones where the ore had been considered too poor to bother.

    Miners still mix cyanide and water and slowly trickle it over piles of ore, but the piles are much bigger. Now they blast away entire mountains of rock, pile the ore in heaps the size of a football field and apply a river of cyanide, leaving behind hills of tailings and waste rock.

    Environmentalists cringe at the technique, not just because of the hazard of an accidental cyanide release, but also because of a long-term risk related to exposure of rock to the weather. The ore is often high in sulfides, and water passing through the rock and soil creates sulfuric acid, which in turn leaches poisonous heavy metals into runoff water, with iron in the rock turning streams an orange-red.

    The article appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (June 11, 2001).

  • McGraw-Hill's Integrative Biology Glossary defines heap-leach extraction as "[a] technique for separating gold from extremely low-grade ores. Crushed ore is piled in huge heaps and sprayed with a dilute alkaline-cyanide solution, which percolates through the pile to extract the gold, which is separated from the effluent in a processing plant. This process has a high potential for water pollution."

  • The Mineral Policy Center reports that the use of heap-leach mining has caused environmental damage and harmed human health.

  • Rocky Ledge Mining Supply agrees:

    Cyanide is extremely dangerous to site personnel and the environment. It is an archaic methodology that has no place in today's world now that there is a better solution.

    The company markets a non-cyanide alternative for which it claims a gold-recovery rate that is higher than that of the usual cyanide leach.

  • Glamis Gold, Ltd., based in Reno, Nevada, is the owner of the San Martín gold mine near El Porvenir, where the cyanide heap-leach process is employed.

  • The Earth Island Institute reports on another Glamis mining project (in California):

    The Glamis Imperial Mine, proposed by Glamis Gold, Ltd. (trading symbol GLG) six years ago, would be a massive open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mine located in the heart of an area now withdrawn from future mining claims. This area is adjacent to designated wilderness, critical habitat for the desert tortoise and an area of critical environmental concern for Native American cultural values. The proposed mine has drawn substantial opposition from Native American tribes, labor groups, environmental organizations, academia and experts in religion, economics, the National Historic Preservation Act and water rights.

  • The Center for Economic & Social Rights tracks the gold-mining industry in Honduras:

    Extraction industries pose a serious threat to the environment and human health, especially in less developed countries that [desperately] need foreign exchange. In the last five years, the Honduran government has quietly granted mining companies 350 licenses to exploit over 30% of national territory. CESR has worked with Honduran community groups to document the human rights effects of gold mining and have submitted a joint report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights asking the Committee to ensure that the rights of affected communities are protected from unregulated mining companies.

    The Center's full report is available.

  • In May, 2001, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has noted its concern and made recommendations:

    23. The Committee is concerned about the occurrence of forced evictions, especially among peasants and indigenous populations and in the areas where mining activities are conducted, without adequate compensation or appropriate relocation measures.


    United Nations 38. The Committee strongly urges the State party to adopt and implement legislative and other measures to protect workers from the occupational health hazards resulting from the use of toxic substances — such as pesticides and cyanide — in the banana-growing and gold-mining industries.


    45. Given that mining concessions may have a significant impact on the enjoyment of article12 and other provisions of the Covenant, the Committee recommends that applications for mining concessions be publicized in all the localities where the mining will take place, and that opposition to such applications be allowed within three months (not 15 days) of their publication in the relevant locality, in accordance with principles of procedural fairness.

    46. The Committee urges the State party to adopt immediate measures to counter the negative environmental and health impacts of the use of pollutants and toxic substances in specific agricultural and industrial sectors, such as banana growing and gold mining. In this regard, the Committee recommends that the State party establish a mechanism by which it can review effectively the environmental impact studies conducted by or on behalf of these sectors.

  • At MIT, other students are working to help ensure clean water in developing countries:

    MIT graduating students who did clean water projects in Nicaragua and Nepal took the top prizes … in MIT's first IDEAS Design Competition for "original innovative designs that serve a wider community need." A team headed by Rebecca Hwang, a senior in chemical engineering from Buenos Aires, Argentina, won the $5,000 first prize for her project on colloidal silver ceramic filters in Nicaragua.

    A full report is available in MIT's Tech Talk (May 22, 2002).