Cyanide, science and society

Written by Catalin Hosu

An interview with Dr. Terry Mudder, a global science and engineering consultant and an expert on cyanide.

Terry Mudder

Dr. Terry Mudder

Can cyanide be used safely in mining operations? ‘Yes. And so it is and has been, all over the world,’ says Dr. Terry Mudder, acknowledged as a global premier expert on the subject and recently nominated for induction to the newly formed International Mining Hall of Fame. ‘To state simply that cyanide cannot be used safely under any circumstances is a falsehood.’

Unfortunately, he says, ‘fear is more marketable than knowledge, which is why rumours and unsubstantiated reports regarding the dangers associated with cyanide often appear in the media and get repeated endlessly without verification.’

Dr. Mudder notes that, ‘Whether or not mining in general should be allowed is not debatable from a practical viewpoint, since humans have been demanding and using metals and minerals extracted from the Earth for many millennia and will continue to do so for many more. Without them civil society as we know it would collapse. Globally, there is a struggle to define sustainable development and manage limited resources, while the demand for metals and minerals increases steadily.’

‘Cyanide becomes toxic if it is used improperly by humans,’ Dr. Mudder points out. ‘The same principle applies to common household products like bleach, which contains chlorine, a chemical exhibiting toxicity similar to cyanide.’ He acknowledges there have been regrettable accidents involving cyanide. Dr. Mudder suggests that although there are many more injuries in and around the home than at a mining operation, the risks taken at home are acceptable as they are self imposed and due to the real and perceived benefits. Fatal accidents in and around the home, in a vehicle or smoking far exceed those associated with industrial cyanide exposure. Yet the personal self-imposed risks are deemed acceptable. Regardless of the potential toxicity of chlorine, most people would continue to use it to disinfect their water supplies versus being exposed to deadly micro-organisms. It is a balance between risk and reward.

He notes, ‘Although we are not responsible for the existence of risk, we are responsible for ignoring it.’ In a paper prepared for the Government of Romania and relating especially to the Rosia Montana mine project, Dr Mudder counters a number of myths regarding cyanide and its use that have appeared repeatedly in the media worldwide.

Dr. Mudder noted that there are no environmentally safe and economically viable alternatives superior to cyanide for the recovery of gold despite tens of millions of dollars spent by the international mining industry on research over many decades. In contrast the banning of mining would not eliminate the use of cyanide as only about ten percent of its global production is used in the recovery of gold. Most is used in the manufacture of plastics, pharmaceuticals and other useful products.

Cyanide has been studied as extensively as any other natural and manmade chemical. Dr. Mudder states, ‘There is sufficient technical information to use this chemical safely in mining. Its elimination would hinder the progress of people in developing countries and emerging nations seeking a better life and a higher standard of living.’

In the year 2000, a serious environmental incident occurred at the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania. The overtopping and collapse of the tailings dam resulted in the release of thousands of tonnes of slurry and solution containing cyanide as well as metals and solids into the Tisza River. Dr. Mudder noted this incident was the result of irresponsible behaviour. There was total disregard of international best practices and the safe guarding of the public and the environment.

Following that incident the United Nations Environmental Program hosted a workshop in Paris to bring together delegates from government agencies, environmental and wildlife protection groups, cyanide producers and the mining industry. Dr. Terry Mudder was invited to participate and speak as a leading international expert. From this meeting the International Code for Management of Cyanide at Gold Mining Operations referred to as the Cyanide Code was created. The purpose of this code was to provide the gold industry worldwide with a set of guiding principles and standards for the management of cyanide for the protection of workers, the public and the environment during and following operations.

Gabriel Resources Limited was one of the first companies to become a signatory to the International Cyanide Management Institute (ICMI) meaning the Roşia Montană project would be certified under the Cyanide Code adhering to its Principles and Standards of Practice.

‘Of the roughly one dozen documented cyanide related incidents that had occurred over past century worldwide essentially all of them could have been avoided if the gold mining operations had been certified under the Cyanide Code. In fact, the incident at Baia Mare could have been avoided if the operation had been certified under the Cyanide Code and had adhered to state-of-the-art international Best Practices as required under the EU Directives and EC Best Available Technologies.’

Dr. Mudder further notes, ‘Since the Cyanide Code has been fully implemented in 2005 nearly a decade ago there have been no major environmental incidents at a single certified gold mining operation anywhere in the world.’

He concludes, ‘The final determination regarding the fate of the Rosia Montana or any gold mining project should not be based solely on the false belief cyanide cannot under any circumstances be used in a safe and environmentally acceptable manner.’