Mercury and Mining in Columbia by Erycka Montoya

As I sit here reading an article about the different kinds of coal-coking ovens I am reminded that more often than not, the things we shy away from the most, always find a way to become present, almost taking over some aspect of our lives.  I am being forced to recall conversions and orders of magnitude from that first week of classes, the meaning of TSP and the EPA’s MACT ruling.  Let’s just say these terms, the mechanics and very scientific processes of mining processes are the very subject matter I expected to encounter minimally in my future work.  Yet, here I am tackling it as I work on my thesis and internship project.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a presentation where the rest of the guests present were engineers and other government representatives from the Mining and Environmental Ministries among others.  The presentation was about mercury contamination.  It was focused on the various sources of mercury contamination in Colombia, its impacts and a plan of action to mitigate its harms.  Currently, Colombia does not have any norms regarding mercury residues.  It was of course informative, and some of it shocking, but what really made an impression on me were the Q&A segments throughout the event.  There was a lively debate about the statistics (Gautam, Monique, Mara, I think all three of you particularly would have enjoyed it).  The (people) presenting the study were researchers and /or other associates from a University.  And well I have already mentioned who the audience was.

Members of the audience felt very strongly that the statistics and the estimates about the levels of mercury contamination were misleading.  More problematic still for some was the risk that this information might result in stigmatizing mining markets which are so crucial to Colombia’s economy.  In the case of coal, the one representative from the Ministry of Mining felt that the information regarding coal misrepresented the quality of Colombia’s carbon when it has, in comparison to that of most nations, very low levels of mercury.   The researchers time and time again reiterated that this was the first study of its kind (in Colombia) and discussed the several challenges that a study of this kind presented; the costs and difficulty of gathering samples and providing measurements—how to account for those residues that go into the atmosphere and then come back down, and the difficulty in coming up with base figures.  But it was the difficulty in the standardization of measurements and the lack of access to information that struck me as some of the issues that were raised so often in various Bard CEP discussions.  The researchers claimed to have met resistance from other Institutions and from the related government offices (many of those present in the room) in their various attempts in obtaining information and argued that an alignment in the diffusion of information was needed in order to strengthen their investigation.

I couldn’t help but think of the tension between the different actors involved in such matters and how they choose to present information—think Love Canal.  Monique, once asked whether the government should have waited in condemning the neighborhood until there was more conclusive evidence about the impacts of the toxic material present.  Underlying that question was the need to give thought to what informs how policy is made.

And that is in fact what this investigation was ultimately about.  The researchers were looking to standardize mercury residue measurement with the objective of creating base figures for mercury values that are actually dangerous to human population and having the government eventually adopt this norm.  Some audience members conveyed that the precautionary principle should be applied because Mercury is a no-threshold toxicant.  If that’s the case, what other implications are there? How does Colombia transform its mining sector without losing its growing capacity to contribute to the economy’s growth? How do scientists account for the measurements of natural occurrences of mercury?

Lastly, the issue of statistics in general. I recall Gautam’s various warnings about the manner in which numbers are presented, the need to evaluate and analyze them carefully before taking them at face value (remember Costanza).  I was listening after all.

The point is that it matters and that it’s surprising the ways one finds themselves connecting the dots.