Illegal mining causing high mercury levels in Colombia’s Cali River

Cali River. (Image by C arango, Wikimedia Commons.)

The Attorney General’s Office of Colombia issued a communiqué on Sunday alerting about high levels of mercury and lead in the Cali River, which supplies fresh water to Santiago de Cali, the capital of the western department of Valle del Cauca.

Illegal mining in the Farallones National Natural Park has been identified as the cause of the metal pollution, which was originally detected in the Felidia River, a tributary of the Cali River. 

According to a study carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office with the support of the Anti-Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Section of the United States Embassy, toxic elements in the Felidia River have reached levels of 23 parts per million (ppm), exceeding the reference of the Canadian and WHO Regulations that establish a maximum limit of 0.1 to 0.17 mg/kg.

“Illicit activities represent a direct threat to the park’s ecosystem and to the water quality of six of the seven rivers that supply the city, a situation that has been repeatedly denounced and alerted by the Attorney General’s Office,” the media statement reads. “Faced with these alarming results, the control entity has activated an action plan aimed at dealing with this environmental crisis in collaboration with the Attorney General’s Office, the National Police, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Defense, the Valle del Cauca Government, Cali’s Mayori and [public services provider] EMCALI.”

The Attorney General pointed out that monitoring and heavy metal measurements were carried out in the Felidia River as part of a series of commitments agreed upon through the National Mercury Table, convened by Colombian authorities to deal with the environmental crisis caused by irregular gold extraction.  

Fresh water sources in other departments such as Antioquia, Córdoba, Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, Bolívar and Santander, have also been identified as threatened by mercury contamination resulting from illegal mining.  

“The Attorney General’s Office will issue a directive with field sampling and will soon publish a diagnostics report of the sites with the highest levels of mercury contamination from mining activities in Colombia,” the brief reads.

The government department also called for a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to the use of mercury and demanded effective inter-institutional coordination and a firm commitment to address the environmental emergency caused by illegal extractive operations. 

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