Mines receives $4M NSF grant to study artisanal gold mining

A five-year, $4 million National Science Foundation grant will put Colorado School of Mines at the center of efforts to tackle the public health and environmental challenges posed by artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

About 30 percent of gold produced worldwide – for use in jewelry, electronics, currency and more – comes from artisanal and small-scale mining operations, a broad categorization that ranges from subsistence miners with a shovel and gold pan to small outfits equipped with basic machinery. 

The practice, which provides a livelihood for an estimated 100 million people directly and indirectly, also comes at a cost: large-scale deforestation, air and water contamination and chronic human diseases, particularly from the mercury used to process the gold ore. 

“Artisanal and small-scale mining is the No. 1 anthropogenic cause of mercury pollution in the world, but most people don’t pay attention to it,” said Juan Lucena, professor and director of the Mines Humanitarian Engineering Program. “It’s invisible to the minds of most people, because it’s hidden in the mountains and jungles of Latin America.”

Starting in January, a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Lucena will work hand-in-hand with mining communities and universities in Colombia and Peru to develop not simply improved techniques and technologies but social organizations that make artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) cleaner, safer and more sustainable. 

“Existing efforts to introduce sustainable practices, primarily through mercury-free processing technologies, have not achieved long-term sustainability because they are believed by miners to be inefficient or uneconomical. And many well-intentioned technical experts in this area lack the training to know how to work with and engage ASGM communities,” Lucena said. “This project will break the trend by educating U.S. engineers to co-design, implement and evaluate sustainable and culturally appropriate ASGM technologies and practices with miners and affected communities in Colombia and Peru.” 

The Mines-led project was one of 14 nationwide to receive Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) awards from the NSF, funding collaborative research with international partners in 24 countries. Established in 2005, PIRE leverages and supports international relationships to address critical science and engineering questions and to develop a cadre of U.S. scientists and engineers with a global outlook capable of working across cultures.

Mines researchers will be collaborating with faculty and students at four universities in Colombia and Peru – Facultad de Minas of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Corporación Universitaria Minuto de Dios, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Peru and Peru’s University of Technology and Engineering – as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy and University of Colorado closer to home. 

By working closely with affected communities, researchers hope to overcome a major challenge faced by existing efforts to introduce sustainable ASGM practices -- a belief by many miners that the alternative practices are inefficient or not economical.

“The crux of the grant is working with artisanal miners and affected people to design technology and social practices that are more sustainable – you can’t do that if you don’t understand the local context,” said Jessica Smith, associate professor of engineering, design and society and one of four co-principal investigators on the project.

The technologies, practices and social organization of artisanal and small-scale mining can vary greatly site to site and miner to miner, said Nicole Smith, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in mining engineering. Smith, a co-principal investigator on the project, has studied ASGM in Africa and South America throughout her career, including two separate State Department-funded projects in Peru to implement cleaner and safer ore-processing technologies

“Even within Peru, there are many people doing all different kinds of things – there's the real small-scale guy and then there’s the larger-scale guy who has lots of equipment. There are women and there are youth playing different roles in the gold supply chain,” Smith said. “What we're trying to do is get a site-specific understanding of these systems – where they’re mining, why they’re mining, questions related to geology, how miners decide where to mine. We’ll use that data to inform the interventions.” 

Small-scale gold miners around the world have been using mercury to process ore for centuries, including here in the U.S. during the days of the Gold Rush, said Elizabeth Holley, assistant professor of mining engineering and a co-principal investigator on the project.

Mercury amalgamates with gold – add it to gold-containing ore and the mercury will bind to the gold, leaving everything else behind. Miners then burn the mercury off, often over an open fire, to obtain the gold.

“The problem is, mercury is very persistent when it enters the environment. It’s reactive. It doesn’t degrade, and it bioaccumulates in the food chain,” Holley said. 

Holley, who specializes in ore deposits and the geochemistry of mine wastes like mercury, will be analyzing the geological and geochemical characteristics of the various sites in Peru and Colombia. Geology plays a major role in how individual deposits are mined, what techniques are used and how damage spreads into the broader environment, she said. 

Researchers will also study environmental monitoring and remediation, applying an approach that relies less on data and modeling and more on local knowledge to address mercury pollution, said Kate Smits, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-principal investigator on the project. 

“Many remediation strategies have been developed to remove or trap mercury in soil and water, but the implementation of such strategies is often limited by cost, material availability, and the knowledge and skill sets of the local communities,” Smits said.  

The grant will support five undergraduate researchers and six graduate students every year, with the goal of graduating at least three PhD candidates over the five-year program.

“We’re really trying to focus on educating engineers about the concepts related to human-centered design,” Nicole Smith said. “What does that mean? It means getting into the field and interacting with the people who will be using these designs.”

Large-scale mining companies are in need of employees who understand the complexities of artisanal and small scale mining, said Jessica Smith, an anthropologist who also teaches courses on corporate social responsibility and participatory fieldwork methods at Mines. In many countries, ASGM and large-scale mining happen in close proximity – often on the same land – leading to potential conflict.

“This is the biggest challenge facing hard-rock mining not just in South America but Africa and other parts of the developing world,” Smith said. “This is an opportunity to help large-scale companies think about how they can most effectively engage that challenge while creating shared social, environmental and economic value with the communities closest to their operations."

CONTACT
Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 | erusch@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu