News of the mercury thermometer’s imminent demise got me wondering about where, exactly, our quicksilver comes from these days. Much to my surprise, I discovered that there is but a single mine in the world dedicated solely to the production of mercury. It is in Khaidarkan, a village in southwestern Kyrgyzstan, where the poor soil has made profitable agriculture a near impossibility. So despite the obvious threat to the local environment, the mine carries on much as it has since the early 1940s, when it was founded to replace Ukrainian mines that had fallen into Nazi hands.
Khaidarkan remains a lone holdout despite powerful international pressure to shutter the operation. Or, to put things more accurately, powerful international pressure from governments and environmentalists. Businesses, on the other hand, remain quite pleased about Kyrgyzstan’s lone-wolf status as a primary mercury producer. This Norwegian report (PDF) explains why:
So why is Khaidarkan the only one still mining mercury for the global market? The main reason is the economic challenges facing Kyrgyzstan, particularly the region where the mine is located. The company that
manages the complex has been struggling with fluctuating mercury prices and continuous technical difficulties such as low ore grades and flooding of shafts with underground water. Many times the state-owned company has had to request subsidies and state support for continuing its operations and the initial efforts to privatize the mine did not yield results. Due to a lack of international regulations and control, Khaidarkan primary mercury is still in demand on the international market which contributes to the continuation of mining operations.
The bottom line is that, when it’s functioning at peak efficiency, the Khaidarkan mine can produce mercury much more cheaply than operations where mercury is culled as a byproduct of other processes. And so businesses that require mercury for their products keep on going back to Kyrgyzstan.
The Norwegian report goes on to recommend that international money go toward retraining the inhabitants of Khaidarkan to perform other jobs (such as gold mining and handicraft production). But has anyone considered outright bribery? It is very difficult to tell a lifelong miner that he must abandon his profession at a relatively advanced age and learn a new trade. Lump sums of cash may be much more enticing for the locals, rather than funneling the aid through middlemen who might not have the local population’s best interest at heart.
The whole Norwegian report is worth a read, if only for the spooky abandoned ferris wheel on page fourteen.