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Mount Diwata: The Legacy of Mercury in a Poisoned Community

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A miner climbs a 20-foot ladder with an 80-pound sack of ore balanced on his shoulders. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A toxic stream in the central mining area at Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A young boy climbs on scaffolding of a multi-level house under construction on the mountain slope at Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Children peek through a small window in the side of their sheet-metal home in Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Diwalwal on the slopes of Mt. Diwata. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A maze of hastily-constructed homes and businesses at the center of Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Miners carry ore up a main street in Diwalwal. A network of pipes and hoses carry clean water from a spring six miles away. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Water supply hoses carry water to the residents of Diwalwal from a clean source six miles away. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Main Street, Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A nugget of gold after the burning process. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Refined gold from the mines at Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A miner prepares to add gold ore and mercury to a ball mill near Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A miner adds mercury to a ball mill at an ore processing facility outside Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Mercury is added to ore and water during ball mill processing of ore. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A teenage boy works in a ball mill beneath a house in Diwalwal. Mercury is added directly to the ore in the iron cylinders to make the gold extraction process more efficient. Mercury particulate is released as the ball mills are flushed. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A young miner tends a ball mill beneath a Diwalwal home. Mercury in the blue pan is used during the process. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A young miner tends a ball mill beneath a Diwalwal home. Mercury in the blue pan is used during the process. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A miner uses a piece of nylon cloth to form a pea-sized amalgam of mercury and gold after panning the slurry produced by a ball mill. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Mercury amalgam tied in a tiny package ready to burn. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Wearing no protection from noxious fumes, workers burning an amalgam of mercury and gold, the last—and most dangerous step—in the gold smelting process. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A pea-sized pellet of mercury and gold particles is burned with a gasoline-powered torch to evaporate the mercury, leaving behind pure gold. Mercury fumes from this process are one of the most common ways workers are poisoned at Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Trying to protect his lungs from mercury fumes, a worker uses his shirt to cover his face during the gold smelting process. This practice is common but is ineffective protection from the damage caused by mercury vapor. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A pea-sized pellet of mercury and gold particles is burned with a gasoline-powered torch to evaporate the mercury. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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In Diwalwal, gold is mined, processed, smelted then weighed—all within a mile of the town's center. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Stores like this one on a main street in Diwalwal buy and smelt gold and sell illegal mercury to the mining community. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Sacks of gold ore form the entrance to a gold mine on a steep slope in Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A miner in Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A young boy stops in for a haircut at a barbershop in central Diwalwal. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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A boy with a lesion on his head. While mercury contamination is a fact at Diwalwal, doctors have no recent blood test data to indicate present contamination levels or the quantities of mercury in the blood of residents and workers. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

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Children at Diwalwal take time to play an impromptu game of basketball. Image by Larry C. Price. Philippines, 2013.

They call this place Diwalwal. It is Cebuano slang that literally means "tongues hanging out from exhaustion," or the way that miners describe themselves after a long day's work on the mountain. It is an apt name for this hardscrabble mining town on the steep slope of Mt. Diwata on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

The boom town, a vast sprawling collection of rickety shanties and tin-roofed shacks, is 30 years old and still going strong. It is also a dangerously contaminated place with so much mercury in the air and water that even government health workers sent to assess the situation have been poisoned.

Mt. Diwata, the "golden mountain," is one of the largest sources of gold in the Philippines and possibly the world. (Diwata means nymph or fairy goddess, a throwback to the animist past when Filipinos believed diwata guarded mountains, rivers and streams.) Since the gold rush here began in the early 1980s, mines on the mountain have produced more than 2.7 million ounces of gold, according to government reports in the Philippine press. The Blacksmith Institute, which monitors mining around the world, estimates that $1.8 billion worth of gold remains in the ground. Large mining companies extract most of the gold, but the small-scale miners have their own 1,800-acre reserve with Diwalwal at its center.

At the height of the Mt. Diwata gold boom, more than 100,000 people lived and worked in Diwalwal. Today, the town is home to an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 miners and their families, including thousands of children, who are constantly breathing mercury fumes and dust from the ore processing that goes on all around them.

Drainage from the mines courses through the streets of Diwalwal nonstop, carrying mercury, cyanide and other toxic chemicals into the Naboc and Agusan River. The Blacksmith Instituted cited the gross mercury and cyanide contamination of these rivers when it named Diwalwal one of the most polluted mining sites in the world.

No one disputes that Diwalwal is an environmental nightmare. Drinking water must be piped into the town through a spaghetti-like tangle of plastic pipes laid on the ground. "Don't go in the water. Don't even touch it," one local warned.

In 2001, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) found above-normal blood mercury levels in almost everyone tested. No significant mercury testing has been done since. Sarah Tanghian, the town administrator of Monkayo, the provincial capital, said that the Philippine government won't pay for testing and the local government can't afford the $550 per person cost—even though many residents show symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Ironically, the very people who are at greatest risk of mercury poison, also have been the most resistant to change, government officials say. Miners have built their three- and four-story tin-roofed shacks on top of rooms that house ball mills, crude drum-and-pulley machines that tumble and break the rock into fine powder. They store barrels of Chinese cyanide and containers of mercury in the rooms where they eat and sleep.

The clanking grinding sounds of the ball mills drown out normal conversation on the floors above. Worse, mercury added to the ore in the ball mill is released into the air with the dust. Once ground, the ore is panned with mercury and water to create a paste-like amalgam which is then pressed into a plastic bag and burned with an acetylene torch. The mercury and plastic burns away, leaving pure gold. The panning spills mercury into the water and the burning releases more mercury vapors into the air. Cyanide also is used in the processing, but mostly by the larger operations.

Efforts to move the processing away from places where people live have largely failed.

"The miners themselves don't want to change their methods," says Joan Pintal, Monkayo city administrator.

Monkayo is 18 miles from Diwalwal. The last 10 miles of the jungle road that leads up to Diwalwal is no more than a rutted dirt track. It is convenient—and more lucrative—for the miners to process their own ore into nuggets than to send heavy bags of rocks down the mountain.

Complicating matters are the guerrilla groups, including the notorious New People's Army (MPA) who patrol the jungle, collecting "taxes" from the miners and other businesses and discouraging government officials from enforcing the few laws that do exist.

Joel Briallentes, a former Monkayo mayor, did try to clean up Dilwalwal, but his efforts may have cost him his life. He was assassinated during his 2003 bid for re-election.

“His dream was to relocate people and to build a tailings dam so mercury wouldn’t be released into the river,” Pintal said.

Mercury, a naturally occurring metal, is a potent neurotoxin that causes brain and nerve damage when ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Mercury accumulates in the food chain, especially in fish, and so can poison people many miles from the source of contamination. Unborn babies and young children are at greatest risk, although unchecked mercury poisoning can be devastating at any age.

"The small-scale gold mining sector is the largest emitter of mercury in the country," says Richard Guiterrez, founder of Ban Toxics, a nonprofit organization that is trying to teach miners to use Borax, an effective and safe alternative to mercury. "There’s a huge concern about how this poison is affecting the current generation of children and succeeding generations of Filipinos if it is allowed to continue in small- scale-mining.”

Charlita Baluis, a sanitary inspector in Monkayo, knows firsthand the dangers of mercury poisoning. As a young public service worker, she was assigned to monitor the cleanliness of restaurants in Diwalwal from 1993 to 2001. She was careful about what she ate and drank and did not work around the ore processing facilities. After her hands began to tremble, a tell-tale sign of mercury poisoning, tests founds that she had accumulated dangerously high levels of mercury in her blood, just from walking about the town. Four other colleagues also had dangerously high levels of mercury in their blood. They left Diwalwal immediately and underwent chelation therapy to remove the metal from their bodies. She recovered but worries about the residents of Diwalwal who are continuously exposed to mercury.

"After so many years," Balius says, "we squander in hell, toil in sweat, searching for wealth."