Adrián Juárez
Founder & CEO
CTA Consultoría y Tecnología Ambiental
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Expert Contributor

The Benefits of Producing Cyanide in Mexico

By Adrián Juárez | Fri, 07/02/2021 - 09:09

Since 2018, the construction of the sodium cyanide production plant owned by US-based The Chemours Company has been suspended in the state of Durango and protests and discussions around restarting the plant are ongoing in 2021.

Chemours was founded in July 2015 as a spin-off from DuPont. Chemours already had the necessary permits required by the state and the federation to build and operate the plant, but these were canceled by the justice system, arguing that the environmental approval process had been deficient and due to potential risks to the community's health.

This action by the justice system, backed by the plant’s opponents, has left hundreds of people unemployed, including those who would operate the adjacent and independent power generation plant, and the indirect jobs that are created on the side of the suppliers; not to mention that with this plant in Durango, the cost of transporting cyanide for the gold mines in this part of Mexico is reduced by a significant percentage.

The possible reasons that led the justice system to make this decision are many, from the company’s lack of seriousness in not carrying out its processes transparently and ethically, to a commercial war or the fact that there are groups that benefit from the status quo.

Cyanide and manufacturers: Cyanide is a chemical used by gold mining but also in other branches of industry, which like other chemicals, such as pesticides, insecticides, or chlorine, can be poisonous to humans above certain concentrations. But used correctly, it can contribute to the production of food and help produce drinkable water by eliminating bacteria that can harm health. Sodium cyanide, which is the form most used commercially in gold and silver mining, is manufactured by 28 companies that have a responsible production certification. They receive this certification after complying with the requirements designed by an international entity and after being audited. These production plants are in the US (including Chemours’ plant in Memphis that has been operating for more than 65 years), China, Germany, Australia, India, Brazil, Peru, and Africa. There is also a production plant in Veracruz, Mexico, that is owned jointly by Cyplus GmbH and Idesa, German and Mexican companies respectively.

The international entity that grants this certification is the International Cyanide Management Institute (ICMI), based in Washington, D.C. It emerged with the support of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), NGOs, and gold and cyanide producers. SEMARNAT, the entity in Mexico that grants environmental permits, is part of UNEP. ICMI aims to certify cyanide producers and gold-producing mines that produce or use cyanide responsibly to protect the health of workers, the environment, and neighboring communities.

Cyanide use in mining: Cyanide is used in gold and silver mining mainly to extract precious metals from rocks; therefore, it is an essential chemical. The cyanide dissolves the metals that are in the rock, after the rock has been crushed to smaller sizes and, in some cases, to a finely milled, almost sand-like state to facilitate the extraction of the metals. Afterward, several processes continue until the gold and silver are recovered.

Risks: The use of cyanide carries risks if it is not carefully handled and certain safety regulations are practiced with discipline. Cyanide in its liquid state, as used in mining, must be kept at an alkaline pH (generally greater than a pH of 10.5) to prevent it from turning into gas that can be inhaled. In addition, operating rules must be maintained in the mine that prevent the cyanide from being spilled and reaching a river or lake, with the danger of poisoning fish and temporarily poisoning the water. Precautions must also be taken to ensure that birds and other animals do not drink the cyanide solutions. Gold mines can also become certified, if they implement the rules established by the Cyanide Code, after an audit demonstrates that the rules are appropriately and completely implemented.

Credibility: The cyanide code, administered by ICMI, is credible. It is endorsed by UNEP and accepted by international financial entities (International Finance Corporation, and entities adhering to the Equator Principles) as an indispensable tool to minimize risks to their investments, by the World Gold Council (www.gold.org), by IRMA (Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance) and others. Gold miners that want to be recognized as responsible have accepted the principles of responsible mining of this organization, which asks them to “align” with the Cyanide Code.

Costs: In gold mining, the price of cyanide plays a relevant role in costs. Gold and silver are sold at prices established by the international market; that is, they are variable and not very predictable. On the cost side, in addition to labor, electricity and fuel, cyanide is a relevant component. For this reason, having several cyanide producers in Mexico is important for consumers, since it allows the gold mines to continue producing even when the international price of gold and silver falls.

Conclusion: It is important for Mexico to have cyanide production plants. These strengthen the supply chain for gold mining, which is a source of employment in rural and poor areas of the country. Companies that invest in Mexico do so under the concept that if they comply with the rules, they will be respected. Generating decent jobs should be one of the goals of any administration. There will always be risks, whether the cyanide comes from China or is produced in Mexico, but the important factor is that the Mexican people and the country’s mining industry benefit.

Photo by:   Adrián Juárez