Golden opportunity

UVic professor shares techniques that could save gold miners’ lives in Third World

Kevin Telmer of the Artisanal Gold Council with a machine that will separate gold from other minerals. The council hopes to aid small scale miners around the world.

Kevin Telmer of the Artisanal Gold Council with a machine that will separate gold from other minerals. The council hopes to aid small scale miners around the world.

You might be Kevin Telmer’s neighbour if you happen to peek over the fence and spot him panning for gold in his backyard.

The Cadboro Bay resident and University of Victoria geochemistry associate professor is honing the techniques he teaches and shares with small-scale and artisanal gold miners in some of the world’s poorest nations, such as Ghana and Tanzania.

For the past 15 years he has shared safer and more efficient mining technologies and practices that improve the health and livelihoods of gold miners, who rely on mercury to extract their gold.

“The mercury they’re using, they’re not aware of the poisonous use of it,” said Telmer, who is on leave from teaching to focus on his Saanich-based non-profit Artisanal Gold Council. He is also a technical advisor to the United Nations, which is negotiating a treaty on mercury use.

“Mercury is a global pollutant,” he said, adding that gold mining and coal burning are the biggest culprits.

Changing the way miners do business is a daunting task, since gold mining supports the livelihoods of more than 50 million people in 70 countries.

“It’s not a mission impossible. There are solutions,” Telmer said.

The miners pour inexpensive liquid mercury into their buckets of heavy minerals and concentrates, which attaches to gold. The labourers use their shirts to squeeze out the excess liquid, forming a small ball that is part mercury, part gold. The ball is heated to remove the mercury, and the miners breathe in the poisonous vapour.

But there are tools they can use to avoid mercury exposure, which can eventually lead to nervous system disorders such as tremors, shaking, loss of coordination, chronic headaches and organ malfunction.

The miners are embracing the use of safer machines that allow them to extract gold at a faster pace, increasing their pay from $2 or $3 to $10 a day in some cases.

“On that basis, the information spreads,” said Telmer.

“We help a community at a time. It’s a lot of work but it feels good.”

To learn more about the council’s advocacy work, field programs and fundraising efforts, please visit www.artisanalgold.org.

emccracken@vicnews.com