Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of mercury, but without documentation!

Indonesia is the worlds largest exporter of mercury, but without documentation! (Vol. 81)

Scale of Indonesian Mercury Trade.

The BaliFokus 2017 report recognises that much of the mercury trade in and out of Indonesia is not captured by the Indonesian bureau of statistics. The UN Comtrade database shows that between 1998 to 2014 some 2,348 tons of mercury for $76 million was exported to Indonesia. However, Indonesia UN Comtrade database shows for the same period, only 555 tons were imported for a value of $5 million. The Ministry of Trade analysed this discrepancy (Badan Pusat Statistik) and found that in 2012 alone, Indonesia imported only 0.99 metric ton of mercury, while the Global Trade Information Service (GTIS) data showed the world exported 336 ton of mercury to Indonesia. One reason for these discrepancies is that Indonesia only records the country of origin, but does not record transit consignments. It appears that Singapore is a major mercury trading hub.

In 2015-2016, Indonesia became a mercury exporter to some countries, mainly illegally, as the transaction are not recorded in the Central Bureau of Statistics report. The UN Comtrade data base indicates Indonesian exported 567 ton worth $5.2 million in 2015, and 1,360 ton worth $ 8.2 million in 2016. Indonesia is now ranked the world’s largest mercury exporter. The estimate of additional domestic mercury trade is about 1,000 ton for $ 10 million.

Recently the authorities have prevented several export shipments of cinnabar (mercury ore). In August 2015, Indonesian customs confiscated 13.1 ton of cinnabar ore at Tanjung Priok Port. In November 2015 customs seized 80 containers of mixed illegal minerals (including cinnabar) with total estimated value of $5.5 million. Some cinnabar is not exported, but destined for local processing in Java. Ambon police confiscated 3 tons of cinnabar in March 2016, 5 tons in November 2016, 4 tons in April 2017, and 17 ton in May 2017.

Yohannes Yudi Prabangkara (Ass Dep Infrastructure Mining & Energy – Ministry of Coordinating Home Affairs) gave a talk at the recent IAGI-MGEI exploration seminar (May 2017) wherein he was part of a combined government team that visited the Maluku cinnabar mining areas (include Mt Cinnabar). The mines are “protected” by various locally connected interests, and can produce about $3 million / day in overall production. Much of the ore travels to Surabaya and Sukabumi for primitive smelting, and then is traded throughout the 165 kabupatens in 13 provinces for use in the illegal gold processing industry. The gold is often on-sold to the 15 gold refineries located in neighbouring countries. It is not easy to disband such illegal cinnabar and gold mining districts, along with their supporting industries and power partners.

Scope of mercury on illegal gold mining.

The NGO Bali-Fokus is instrumental in perusing this mercury ban and has produced a number of good reports on the extent and nature of the cinnabar mining, local mercury production, trade and use in illegal gold mines throughout Indonesia. In April 2017, the Bali-Fokus team produced a report “Mercury trade and supply in Indonesia”. More than a million Indonesians are involved in the illegal gold mining industry at more than 850 sites across Indonesia. They use about 700 ton of mercury per year towards the production of about 60 to 130 ton of gold per year (no official records), being more than the official annual Indonesian production of about 60 ton per year.

Mercury as a danger to health.

Mercury easily bonds with chlorine present in seawater and then can readily enter into the plankton and bottom dwelling microorganisms, wherein the mercury can move up the food chain. Other chemical reactions allow mercury to be taken up by micro-organisms in soils that also move up the food chain. Once mercury enters an animal it accumulates faster than it is excreted. A small bottom feeding shellfish may eat quantities of sludge and so concentrate mercury. Then a small fish eats lots of shellfish, concentrating the mercury further. Then a large fish eats lots of small fishes, further concentrating mercury. Finally, a person eats lots of fish and may get mercury poisoning. A similar pattern can be found in some land animals, eating contaminated vegetation, including rice. Mercury is a heavy metal that is highly toxic if ingested, inhaled as dust, or adsorbed through the skin.

A major catastrophe from mercury poisoning occurred in Minamata, Japan in 1958 when the villagers continued their traditional practice of eating fish, that became contaminated with mercury after a nearby factory regularly disposed of its waste containing mercury into the sea. Victims of mercury poisoning have arms or legs with crooked fingers and look like epilepsy or seizures, convulsions, trembling, confusion, swirling, difficulty waking, and the like, like madmen, if severe then cause death. Exposure to mercury can damage the nervous system, kidneys and cardiovascular system. Growth of some organ systems, such as the nervous system in foetuses, are amongst the most sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury, although almost all organs of the body are also susceptible.

The BaliFokus report (March 2015) reports on strong signs of mercury poisoning in three Indonesian illegal gold mining regions of Bombana (S. Sulawesi), Sekotong (W. Lombok) and Cistu (Banten).  Many other illegal gold mining areas show indications of mercury poisoning.

Geology of mercury.

Cinnabar (HgS) generally occurs as a vein-filling mineral associated with recent volcanic activity and alkaline hot springs. Cinnabar is deposited by epithermal ascending aqueous solutions (those near surface and not too hot) far removed from their igneous source. Mercury is typically obtained through the reduction process of cinnabar minerals. Mercury metal is a liquid at normal room temperature. Like all elements, mercury occurs in tiny amounts in most rocks and throughout the biosphere. Mercury is the 67th abundant element in the earth’s crust.

Miners use of mercury.

Small scale gold miners use mercury in the process to separate gold from the crushed rock, or alluvial gold concentrate. The gold forms an amalgam, entering the liquid heavy mercury, such that it is easier to separate the mercury amalgam from the wet rock powder.  The amalgam is typically squeezes through a cloth to separate excess mercury (for reuse) leaving a semi solid amalgam of gold and mercury. This is then heated in open air to vaporize the mercury and leave behind the uncontaminated gold. The handling of mercury and its vapours are particular toxic. Some metallic mercury may spill directly into the tailings and into the river systems etc.

Yuyun Ismawati of BaliFokus reports on the use of mercury. One Banten ball miller uses about 300 grams of mercury in 5 local ball mills for 2 sacks of ore (about 80kg?). The mercury amalgam is burnt off at home (residential areas) in the air to leave the gold. Tailings are deposited into local waterways that feed into nearby rice fields and fishponds. But each local mining area can have many such ball mills. In the West Nusa Tenggara province, about 30 tons of mercury was being distributed per week to serve about 20,000 ball mills. The economic value of such mining and processing activities in Lombok was estimated at about $22 million in 2012.

Measurement of Mercury.

In 2004, just as the 30 year Newmont Minahasa Raya gold mine in Sulawesi was about to close down, the local fishing community raised concerns of new unusual health problems and pointed to the submarine tailings in Buyant bay. The NGO Walhi and the local police took water samples and claimed excessive levels of arsenic and mercury, and commenced a $133.6 million law suit. This failed on technical terms. However, the case taught Wahli and the police about the proper specifications in taking samples when trying to accurately detect very small amounts of such elements. The acceptable standard is 400 ug/kg in the environment. Contamination can even include the chemical nature of the glass sample containers. In 2006 the suit was settled with Newmont providing $30 million to undertake monitoring over the next 10 years. This monitoring is now completed with no arsenic or mercury pollution being reported.

Mercury in Coal.

UNEP Global Mercury Assessment, 2013, states that Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining/ASGM was identified as the largest source of mercury emissions from intentional use of mercury. UNEP states that in Indonesia, the highest mercury emissions came from the ASGM sector (57.5%), production of oil and gas (10.8%), the combustion of coal (9.9%), burning garbage incinerators and open burning (9.3%), as well as waste disposal (8%). Approximately 59.37% of the mercury is released into the air,15.5% into water and 14% released to soil/sediment. The ASGM sector of Indonesia’s total emissions release about 195 tons/year, or about 20% of total global emissions of mercury.

The control of mercury emissions is included in some of PLN’s newer IPP criteria, though it seems the background levels of Indonesian coal sources mercury is low, and not a significant pollutant.  Mercury emissions are impacted by factors including coal composition, the type of environmental control equipment installed on the unit, boiler operating conditions, and fly ash characteristics.  Some mercury is collected naturally in ESP’s and baghouses, and for units with SCR’s and wet FGD’s, some mercury is also captured in wet scrubbers.  Nevertheless, at some units, additional mercury capture will be needed to comply with emissions regulations. Note that in the US, the Fly Ash contains over half the mercury emitted from coal fired power plants.

An Australian CSIRO study (2,000) of Asian coals indicted Indonesian coals have about 0.050 mg/kg of mercury in coal (range 0.01 – 0.18 from 27 samples), that is slightly lower than the international average of 0.065 mg/kg of coal, though higher than Australian coals.

A Greenpeace 2014 study suggests the 2,000 MW coal fired power station in Batang could produce up to 200 kg of mercury, based on the ANDAL data of coal with 94.6 g/MJ heating value, and mercury content of 0.06ppm for Indonesian coal, plus assumed 50% capture technology. Greenpeace suggests coal derived mercury should be converted into a solid, or mixed with polymer to keep it out of the environment. Indonesian research institutes do not have suitable data on the mercury aspect of Indonesian coals.

Regulation on the way.

Low-level artisanal and small-scale mining activities have expanded since the 90’s, taking advantage of regions with lax mining regulatory regimes and low environmental and social protection.  Indonesia’s use of mercury in the illegal mining sector continues to grow, and now Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of mercury.  The current regulations do not provide the bases for this mercury industry.

The Ministry of Finance regulates the Indonesian National Single Window system that includes the supervision of importation and exportation of goods. Ministry of Trade is to certify and measure the quality of imported and exported goods. Following a world-wide trend, the importation, trade and use of mercury in the mining sector is banned (Ministry of Trade issued Regulation No. 75 / M-DAG / PER / 10/2014). Unfortunately, the provincial and district governments, along with Pelindo port authorities admit their weakness (Ambon) in monitoring the smuggling of cinnabar rocks out of the region and the relative open trade in mercury.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry are obliged to manage environmental permits, restoration of contaminated land etc. Article 88 of the 2009 law on environment protection and management, stipulates that anyone who poses a serious threat to the environment will be held responsible without need to prove fault. Unfortunately, illegal gold mining, and its use of mercury, often thrive in protected forests, where officials find it hard to enter.

Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM) is to manage all mining activity, including mining of cinnabar (mercury ore). Article 161 of Law No.4 of 2009 on Mineral and Coal Mining, any person or holder of IUP Operation Product or IUPK Production Operation which holds, utilizes, conducts processing and purification of transportation, sales of minerals and coal not from holders of IUP, IUPK, can be fined with a maximum imprisonment of 10 (ten) years and a maximum fine of ten billion rupiah. The ESDM is the focal point for the National Action Plan to eliminate mercury from mining. There are hundreds of illegal gold mining sites, and a number of Cinnabar (mercury ore) mining sites that are “protected’ by local parties.

The Ministry of Industry regulates and controls the formal industrial use of mercury. PT. Perusahaan Perdagangan Indonesian (PT. PPI) is the only company allowed to import hazardous and toxic materials, including mercury. Mercury has a number of industrial uses, including thermometers, barometers, mercury switches, fluorescent lamps and other devices. In some industrial processes, mercury is a catalyst. However, the open mercury trade flouts this regulation.

These issues and failings of the various government departments was recently bought to the notice of the President. The President of the Republic of Indonesia, Joko Widodo chaired a limited coordination meeting to discuss the elimination of mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) at the Presidential Office, Jakarta, (9 March 2017). In the closed meeting, the President Widodo presented seven presidential instructions regarding the ban of the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining sites. These instructions are to be followed by a formal product of law.

From an international perspective, the Minamata Convention on mercury was adopted, (Oct 2013) and within a short period, some 96 nations became signatures to the Convention. Indonesia acknowledges the Convention, but is yet to formally sign it. Under the new mercury convention, the global community agreed to phase out the use of mercury in several products and processes by 2020.


  1. A better Future – We may expect to see Indonesia sign the Minamata Convention, and for the recent Presidential recommendations to clean up illegal gold mining, and the associated mercury industry managed through more formal regulations. We may look for more government internal coordination to address the mercury and illegal mining operations throughout Indonesia.


  1. Illegal mining & Mercury may harm Indonesia’s gold sales. – The PT. Aneka Tambang Tbk (Antam) 2016 annual Report of the Board of Commissioners states that “For gold commodity, the Company was looking for lower-cost source of the gold (from legal artisanal mining)”. The report does not explain the “legal” concept of the artisan miners, nor their mining and process methods, or disposal of waste. Clearly Antam is complicit and benefiting from such activities, and if it turns out there is an associated negative mercury environmental impact, then the “liability principal” of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry may be used to extract considerable compensation from Antam. For comparison, the Newmont case (above) cost $30 million over 10 years just to monitor. Other gold mining companies in Indonesia may be locally encouraged to “work with” the artisan / illegal miners, but this approach may not be the best in the long term. The approach may be likened to the Kimberlite diamond process to stop the “blood diamonds”. There are several well documented reports reflecting the lack of human rights in many of Indonesia’s illegal gold mining sites, and the spread of mercury (or cyanide) from illegal mining may further impact on international gold buyer’s habits. In the past 10 years the international minerals markets have started to better understand the supply chains, including gold from high-risk countries. Indonesia took great measures to develop sustainable logging, and sustainable palm oil industries, and may need to act decisively to control or curb illegal gold mining and their associated poor practices to protect the people, and protect the good gold mines.
  2. Mercury in coal is manageable – The low levels of mercury in Indonesian coals, and the technology to capture much of the mercury appears to be “no problem” for some new power plants and to meet the AMDAL requirements. As the mercury issue moves ahead with the illegal mining issue, it may gain the attention of the popular press, wherein environmental groups may press the mercury in coal issue. The Indonesian coal industry should be prepared in advance to counter this argument.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.