Illegal mercury imports alarming – Former EPA boss

mercury for Gold Mining

In the wake of controversies surrounding government’s management of the illegal small-scale mining menace, popularly known as ‘Galamsey’, a former Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), John Pwamang, has bemoaned the unlawful importation and use of mercury for Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM).

According to the former Pesticides Registrar who worked with the EPA for close to 30 years, despite the existence of policy, legal and institutional frameworks to guide the import and use of mercury in Ghana, patrons seem to disregard established protocols and still use the deadly chemical indiscriminately.

In a presentation delivered at a webinar organised to discuss mercury pollution in Ghana, Mr. Pwamang revealed that for the whole of 2020 no one had imported mercury using the laid-down legal procedures.

“There are systems in Ghana to control the importation and distribution of mercury for use in ASGM operations, but whether this is actually being complied with is another matter. I left service in 2020, but before I left service we had not recorded anybody coming in to get a clearance for mercury. In the whole of 2020, there was no import of mercury through the system,” he said.

Mercury importation

Mr. Pwamag further revealed that for one to import mercury into Ghana for ASGM activities, the person will need to be licenced by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The importer then has to obtain a permit from the EPA through the Hazardous Chemical Committee’s Chemical Clearance Programme. Additionally, before a permit is given to a recurrent importer of mercury, he or she is required to provide records showing distribution of the previous consignments.

This process, he clarified, is backed by both international conventions and national policies including the Minamata Convention on Mercury adopted in 2013 by the United Nations, the ECOWAS Directives on Mining, Articles 36 and 41 of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, and the National Environmental Policy.

Ghana has laws such as the Mercury Law 1989 (PNDC Law 217), Section 10 of the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Act 490), the Environmental Assessment Regulations of 1999 (LI 1652), the Minerals and Mining Act 2006, the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act (2016) and the Factories, Offices and Shops Act 1970 (Act 328), all of which guide the procurement and use of mercury.

However, Mr. Pwamang laments mercury is still being imported and distributed under hazardous conditions in the country.

The ex-Director of the EPA noted that the only licenced importer known to the EPA is now out of the trade, and called on regulatory bodies to police the system to ascertain the origins of mercury consignments in the ASGM sector.

“There was one lady who we knew, who was a licenced importer of mercury. She went out of business, but somehow it appears mercury is still available in the field as the professor has said, [referring to a previous speaker] and is being used to process gold. And this is something that I think the regulatory authorities have to wake up to, to see where the mercury is coming from for these operations because we are not recording it in the EPA clearance system,” he stressed.

Supporting views from the webinar

In the same webinar, an Associate Professor at the University of Mines and Technology (UMAT), Prof. James Dankwah, bewailed the effects of mercury poisoning on communities close to ASG mining areas such as Birim, Densu, Ankobra and Tano, among others.

According to the professor of metallurgical and material engineering, mercury is used for amalgamation – the process of dissolving gold or silver ore into mercury and later recovering it through heating by artisanal miners.

“Unfortunately, even though Amalgamation itself is a very simple and effective process, the mercury that is used after they [artisanal miners] have gotten their gold is illegally and indiscriminately dumped on land and into water-bodies,” he said, adding: “Accordingly, for communities living close to water-bodies there tends to be mercury-poisoning.”

This poisoning, the Professor lamented, is causing pre-natal and post-natal health complications for both women and their babies.

“Recently, at the various hospitals in Ghana we have started reading about stories of deformities in children that are born in such communities. And it appears the whole of Ghana is currently under siege by activities of the ASGM sector,” he said, sounding rather distraught.

Pure Earth and World Environment Day

The two experts were speaking in a webinar organised by the Pure Earth Ghana office to commemorate World Environment Day on 5th June 2023.

Pure Earth Ghana is a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting communities and promoting sustainability by working to reduce pollution, improve public health and create a cleaner, healthier Ghana, especially for children.

Through research, advocacy and collaboration with local stakeholders, Pure Earth has been raising awareness about environmental issues, implementing effective solutions and advocating a healthier environment for all Ghanaians.

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