On March 2, the government of Costa Rica signed a decree declaring a state of emergency in several communities bordering Nicaragua, due to mercury contamination in the water they use daily to drink, cook and shower. The declaration was requested by the Municipal Council of San Carlos, which received a report from the Ministry of Health indicating that the water that supplies that area contains up to 65 times the amount of mercury allowed by national regulations.
According to Delfino.cr, there are about 1500 people in the communities of Crucitas and Pocosol, who at the moment cannot be supplied by local sources and must consume water that comes from other places through cisterns or bottles. To make matters worse, the deplorable condition of the roads of some of these villages makes these tasks almost impossible.
It is hoped that this emergency decree will mobilize the necessary resources to supply drinking water to the communities. The urgency is clear: according to a report published on February 25 in the newspaper La Nación, eight residents of the area underwent blood tests to assess their level of exposure to mercury. All show results that are above the values recommended by the World Health Organization.
The public health problem that exists today in the northern part of our country is alarming and yet it is onlythe tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface there is a complex, very complex environmental and social problem that needs to be addressed quickly and decisively.
The mercury of Crucitas
Millions of years ago, in the area of Crucitas, deposits of gold and other elements such as copper, silver, mercury and arsenic were produced. On one day, in the late 1980’s, high concentrations of gold were identified in the area. Then, the mining company Infinito Gold presented an environmental impact study to carry out a mining operation.
Some irregularities in the process and the prohibition of industrial open-pit metal mining in the country, prevented this project from being carried out. However, the announcement about the presence of gold triggered clandestine and polluting exploitations, first reported in 2017. Since then, an area so rich in minerals has been degraded environmentally and socially, as a result of anarchy and lack of control in the management of chemicals, water, sediments and, above all, mercury.
For centuries, mercury has been used for gold mining because those elements are naturally amalgamated. That’s an easy way to separate gold from the rest of the sediment or crushed rock. As the temperature rises, the mercury in the amalgam evaporates so that only the precious gold remains. But the mercury does not disappear, but enters the air, where it can be breathed by the artisanal miner or displaced by the wind to other locations. Eventually, it falls into the ground and can be absorbed either by plants or consumed by fish or humans.
Mercury can cause neurological and behavioral disorders, as well as affect the nervous and immune systems, digestive system, lungs and kidneys. On the other hand, it tends to disperse over large areas through rain, rivers or air, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to correct a situation of mercury contamination. There are water treatment techniques, but they are extremely expensive and difficult to implement in natural environments. For these reasons, its use is regulated in Costa Rica. The mercury that triggered the environmental and health crisis that we lament today was carried illegally, across the border with Nicaragua.
What do we know and what can we do?
The government’s plan to combat mercury pollution of Crucitas water is limited to responding to the public health problem. However, what actions are proposed in relation to the environmental problem? We know that the company Infinito Gold resumed the arbitration process against Costa Rica for the annulment of the Crucitas mining concession and that the government has shielded itself behind this legal condition for not acting. However, the concession area is only a part of the affected area and much remains to be done.
Costa Rican regulations establish that the owner of the land must answer for the soil or groundwater contamination that occurs as a result of the activities carried out in that location. Why has this regulation not been applied to in the midst of the Crucitas crisis? Why are those responsible for this unfortunate situation not being asked to respond? Who is responsible? Who responds?
Everything indicates that the problem requires a work team that addresses all aspects: legal, environmental, social, economic and public health. This would make it possible to define a course. A route of action. What is unacceptable is to disguise the solution of such a complex problem by sending cisterns and water bottles to the communities of Crucitas and its surroundings. More needs to be done. Much more. The 1500 people who have been affected to date, nature and the reputation of a country that calls itself ecological in each of the international forums in which it participates.