People in two villages of Xekong province are troubled as gold diggers are using toxic materials to separate the gold from ore deposits. Villagers fear there are serious risks of illness not only to them but also the gold miners because of the unsafe practices. People have posted a letter on social media begging the relevant sectors to take control of the gold diggers in the two villages of Dakpong and Dakchang in Dakcheung district, Xekong province.
The letter asked concerned sectors to hurry up and inspect the mountain where gold miners are digging for gold because people want to know if they are acting illegally or not. Concerns are now heightened as prospectors are aggressively mining rivers and streams, and using mercury – a highly toxic metal – to extract the gold through heating. To recover gold from a mercury-gold amalgam, it is heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving the gold behind. The vapour released can have devastating impacts on nearby communities, as well as the miners themselves. Mercury is not only poisonous to humans and animals, but also dangerous to the environment. If people inhale the toxic mercury vapours, it can cause serious damage to the nervous system. Director of the provincial Energy and Mines Department, Mr Onway Savaengtham, told Vientiane Times on Thursday that he had not yet seen the letter. Most illegal mining in Xekong province ceased years ago, with only small groups of miners still digging for gold along the border between Laos and Vietnam.
“These places where illegal miners are digging for gold have no road access, so it’s difficult for authorities to oversee them. Officers have to walk for days to get there,” Mr Onway said.
According to a report of the Environmental Audit Sector of the Mining Department five years ago, amateur gold miners were common in all provinces of Laos, but Xieng Khuang, Vientiane and Luang Prabang provinces had the highest concentrations. Xieng Khuang authorities said that unlicensed gold mining in the province had stopped after authorities set up measures to control the illegal activity. Six years ago many groups of illegal miners were working the streams, rivers, forests and mountain areas, digging up the ground and extracting the occasional nugget. This resulted in significant damage to the environment with forests destroyed and water resources in the area heavily polluted. Provincial authorities fined those involved in the illegal activity with the prospectors caught mostly coming from Xieng Khuang