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MONGOLIA – Assessment of environmental dangers caused by mercury contamination during exploitation of mineral deposits in the river Selenge catchment Administrative

Administrative body: Ministry of Environment of the Czech Republic
Technical supervisor: RNDr. Martin Holý

GEOMIN družstvo, Jihlava
Project manager: RNDr. Jiří Šourek
Cooperating organizations: Saint Mary´s University, Halifax

Mendel Agricultural and Forestry University, Brno

Partner organization in Mongolia: Ministry of Nature and Environment, Ulaanbaatar
Cooperating organizations in Mongolia: Mongolian Technical University, Ulaanbaatar

Local authorities in the province of Selenge, Darchan, Bulgan and Toy

The project is financed from the state budget of the Czech Republic under the Official Development Assistance Program of the Czech Republic

Schedule for implementation of the Project: the project have been carried out during the years 2006-2008



Development of small-scale mining for gold in Mongolia
Until the early nineties the small-scale mining was an unknown concept. However, during the last decade of the 20th century Mongolia went through a dramatic development and change that can briefly be characterized as a transition from centrally planned economy to free market economy. The Mongolian society during this period, which continues to the present day went through a number of economic changes which have had and still have heavy impacts on social policy and on the environment. One of the most important phenomena is nowadays the “gold rush” that triggered extreme increase in number of small-scale miners. The major reasons for the development of small-scale mining are in general high rate of unemployment and lack of job opportunities in towns and cities and even in the countryside, which suffers from a lack of industry and infrastructure. The great increase in the number of miners is caused, besides high prices of minerals that ensure reasonable benefits to small miners, also a flood of former herdsmen and farmers who have not succeeded in the changing socio-economic environment and conditions.

About one hundred thousand people are presently believed to be involved in Mongolia in legal or mostly illegal mining activities. The majority of these seasonal workers are concentrated in ore districts with prevailing gold mining, whereas smaller part of miners is involved in extraction of fluorite and coal in the environs of Ulaanbaatar. Part of the production of small-scale mining comes from reworked tailings after active or shut down large-scale mining operations and some miners exploit small deposits that large mining companies take little interest in their exploitation. The volumes of extracted minerals differ considerably whether they come from weekend miners – teenagers with pan for gold washing over to family groups up to small-scale mechanical mining.

It is obvious that the majority of small miners who have not enough capital are using simple mining and mineral processing technologies and methods that have frequently negative impacts on the local environment and often result in endangering the health of local population and the miners themselves. The use of mercury in extraction of gold is the case of a model danger.

Identification of strong points and weaknesses of small-scale mining in Mongolia

Benefits of small-scale mining



Financial benefits for local and central economy

Exploitation of small gold occurrences not viable for large-scale mining

Rejuvenation of local market, offer of services for miners – manufacture and sale of relevant gear, potential market for herdsmen

Reworking of tailings after large-scale mining, improvement of total recovery of gold

Social benefits

Job opportunities for population with poor education

Alternative jobs for herdsmen families who due to restructuring of agricultural production or other reasons lost their resources for living

Stabilization of local population, prevention of depopulation of countryside and migration to cities, Ulaanbaatar in particular

Negative impacts of small-scale mining

Economic impacts

Development of shadow economy

Insufficient technical and technological support and protection of small-scale mining operations, low productivity of mining and mineral processing

Missing state supervision of exploitation of mineral wealth of the country

Social impacts

Large migration of population into mining districts, concentration of population in areas with poor social environment and infrastructure

Abandonment of existing style of living, i.e. extensive pasturage that secured stable resources for living of local population

Insufficient social security and health care of small miners

High safety risks connected with primitive small-scale mining operations

Development of ghost settlements and social stress-related problems once the mining operations are terminated

Negative by-products appearing in areas of small-scale mining – increased criminality, alcoholism, etc.

Ecological impacts

Uncontrolled use of mercury in gold extraction, high healthy risks, intoxication of biota by mercury

Devastation of landscape

Occupation of land useable for extensive pasturage, liquidation of resources of potable water and watering places for livestock

Negative areal impacts on quality of surface waters, lower production of fish and negative influence on fish diversity

Zero reclamation of mined out localities, absence of programs controlling closing down localities with shut down mining operations




Specialists of local authorities and the Ministry of Nature and Environment of Mongolia have been trained during the project implementation at specific localities and mineral deposits, which represent relevant long-running ecological burdens due to high contents of mercury.

Objectives of scheduled work

A) To assess the extent of contamination of alluvial sediments in flood plains and stream sediments by mercury through implementation of geo-ecological exploration and environmental evaluation of localities with existing or finished mining for placer gold deposits in central Mongolia

B) Analysis of utilization of mercury in mining industry of Mongolia and assessment of anticipated impacts of mercury contamination on bio-systems and human health

C) Training of Mongolian specialists and employees of local authorities ensuring the environmental protection. Transfer of methods of exploration, risk assessment and reclamation works including relevant instrumentation and technologies

D) Proposal of relevant environmental and ecological standards limiting the use of mercury in mining operations



The eastern part of the large catchment of the river Selenge was selected as an area to be investigated in the territory of Mongolia. It includes sub-catchments of the most important southern tributaries – the rivers Orkhon and Tuul and eastern tributaries – the rivers Kharaa and Eroo.

A considerable part of Mongolian gold production comes from this region where the largest concentration of small-scale miners occurred since the mid nineties of the last century who through their activities intervene to various degree in the environment and who represent the decisive community using mercury during their mining activities. The most important historical and recent environmental impacts caused by mercury were identified in this region.

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