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Covertly run and fueled by cyanide, illegal gold mining operations have been evading authorities across China – and killing many who take the risk

By Zhao Xiang Updated Jun.1

Investors watch as the price of gold in China increases by 9 percent, March 7

Seven men were found dead in an abandoned mine in Jiang County, Northwest China’s Shanxi Province in late December 2021. Among them was Liu Zhanyi, who authorities said had a record of running illegal gold mining operations.  

According to Jiang County police, Liu and his partners snuck into the abandoned polymetallic mine on December 22, 2021. Relatives reported them missing the next day after failing to reach them.  

Six days later, rescuers spotted them 2.7 kilometers into the mine shaft. Autopsies showed they all died from hydrogen cyanide gas poisoning – a result of “pit wash,” a gold extraction method commonly used in illegal gold mining.  

A specialist in gold mining who requested anonymity walked NewsChina through the process: liquid sodium cyanide is sprayed on slag and tailings to leach any remaining gold ore. Miners collect the solution and add granular activated carbon, which absorbs the dissolved gold. The carbon is burned off, leaving solid gold. A byproduct of the process is deadly hydrogen cyanide gas.  

Chinese media reported at least 35 people died in pit wash mining accidents over the past seven years. Most had worn gas masks. 

Fatal Endeavor 
The mine where Liu and his crew perished is in Liceyu Valley, which has abundant ore reserves of gold, iron and copper. Li Chuan, from Qianyu Village in the valley, told NewsChina that the pit was discovered by a State geological survey team in 2006, and then sold to a entrepreneur surnamed Yang.  

Xiao Fei, who works at the natural resource bureau in Jiangxian County, told NewsChina that Yang had an exploration permit but not mining rights. He was unsure whether Yang had ever mined the pit.  

“It’s a polymetallic pit containing little gold. I don’t think it has great mining value,” he said.  
According to Xiao Fei, Shanxi Province zoned 56 million mu (37,333 square kilometers) of forest – including Liceyu Valley – for permanent ecological protection in 2017. Local authorities closed all mines in the valley by April 2018.  

Valley resident Li Chuan said Yang turned to mines outside the protected zone and abandoned his Liceyu Valley mine. Soon after, Yang’s pit was illegally reopened.  

The practice is common in the area. “In 2021 alone, some villagers and I caught two groups of illegal miners, and I can’t tell you how many more I’ve caught over the years,” Li, who lives near the abandoned mine where Liu and his crew died, told NewsChina. “They dumped pit wash into the nearby Sushui River, which made my cows and sheep sterile.” Li alleged Liu had bribed the village’s head and Party secretary.  

Liu hired six people from his hometown of Song County, Henan Province to work the mine for 200 yuan (US$32) per day, interviewed relatives of the deceased crew told NewsChina. The doomed group arrived in Jiangxian County on December 6, 2021. 
The relatives alleged that Liu and his associates paid off six local officials and villagers for protection before they began mining. “They kept watch for Liu’s group,” Li Chuan said.  
Shanxi police detained eight people suspected of involvement in the tragedy, including the head of Qianyu Village. 

Pitfalls of Business 
Liu and his crew came from Song County, Henan Province, over 200 kilometers from Jiangxian County. Covering the gold-rich Xiong’er and Funiu mountain ranges, Song County’s economy has depended on gold mining since the 1970s. Song County has 372 tons of gold reserves and produces 2.1 million grams of gold each year, ranking fifth nationwide. Yet the county was classified as impoverished until 2020.  

“In the early 1990s, nearly every household in Song County mined gold illegally by dissolving low-grade gold ore with cyanide and then extracting it with active carbon,” Zhang Chao, an insider of Song County’s pit wash industry, told NewsChina. “Some of them got rich.”  

Pit wash mining took off following a government-led crackdown on private mining in the late 1990s. Abandoned pits are often remote and have large amounts of slag and tailings. Though the process yields little gold, operating costs are low.  

“A pit wash crew usually involves partners or wage workers,” Zhang told NewsChina. “One of my friends earned more than 1 million yuan (US$158,300) as a pit wash technician on a project that netted 40 million yuan (US$6.3m).”  

According to Zhang, pit wash enterprises are run either by a boss who hires hands or a crew that privately exploits disused pits. Both violate bans on the sale, possession or use of cyanide without a permit.  

“Every 1,000 tons of slag or tailings takes about two tons of sodium cyanide and caustic soda,” Zhang said. Cyanide is extremely potent – a dose of 0.15-0.25 grams can be lethal. Besides cyanide contact, miners risk exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, a byproduct of the sulfur in tailings reacting with caustic soda, as well as carbon monoxide poisoning when the active carbon is burned off to extract gold.  

Zhang said that professional pit wash miners sometimes neutralize toxicity levels in a mined pit by using other chemicals. Otherwise, the deadly gases can linger for up to three years. In July 2021, three villagers in Jianli Village, Henan Province reportedly died from poisoning after they unknowingly entered a former pit wash mine.  

Soon after Liu and his crew perished, three more pit wash miners died from gas exposure in Song County, officials told NewsChina, adding that police are still investigating the case. 

Overview of a gold mine, Jiang County, Shanxi Province

Industrial Chain
Zhang told NewsChina that Song County is home to a complete pit wash mining industry.  

Posing as a buyer in the Song County town of Dazhang, reporter contacted a pit wash chemical vendor surnamed Qin. On January 3, the reporter visited Qin’s warehouse in a local hotel, where there were piles of packaged active carbon, caustic soda and “eco-friendly ore-dissolving agent.” Qin said the agent is non-toxic, cyanide-free, and sells for 13,000 yuan (US$2,057) per ton. He had large amounts in stock. “I can deliver any time for orders under 33 tons,” he said. 
But Qin was cautious, as there were two pit wash incidents in the last three days where nine people died.  

“Police are tightening supervision, so I suggest you pick up your order after Lunar New Year. But if it’s urgent, I can deliver right away. I’m not worried about getting caught, I’m worried about you getting caught,” he added.  

In reality, Qin’s “eco-friendly” agent contains cyanide. The same chemical appeared in a 2016 court case against more than 10 people who used it to pit wash an abandoned gold mine in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province.  

According to court records, the group worked for several months, polluting the water table with cyanide levels of 150 times over the local wastewater emission standards.  

Besides chemical dealers, Song County has many metallurgic workshops that specialize in extracting pure gold from collected ore. Zhang Chao said that after the deaths of Liu and his men, some workshops ran day and night to finish processing ore in fear that police would shut them down.  

Song County also has dozens of jewelry shops that buy gold according to spot prices on the Shanghai Gold Exchange. “The shops never ask where the gold comes from, because many shop owners have gotten rich off pit wash mining,” Zhang said. 

Pictured is a pit wash pool in a village near a gold mine, Song County, January 3

Slack Supervision 
Li Chuan blames lack of supervision. He and other villagers caught five people in a pit in June 2021, but had nowhere to take them.  

“Neither the local police nor natural resources authorities would detain them. The five were taken to a local administration bureau in Weizhuang Town (in Jiangxian County) but they were released,” he said.  

The director of the bureau surnamed Qiao told NewsChina that Jiangxian County’s natural resources bureau handles these cases. However, the bureau denied knowledge of the case.  
“Qiao gave me a phone number telling me to contact him if I find anyone mining illegally. But when I reported a case to him, he said he didn’t handle cases like that,” Li said. Qiao denied Li’s claim.  

Yuncheng City government, which administers Jiangxian County, was informed that an abandoned gold mine was opened up illegally on December 21, 2021 in Liceyu Valley, and ordered Weizhuang authorities to shut it down immediately. However, Weizhuang failed to act in time. Liu and his crew had already entered the mine.  

Following Liu and his crew’s death, 12 officials were punished or removed from their posts, including the Party secretary of Weizhuang.  

In 2008, the central government issued a document that holds mine owners legally responsible for their closed pits and charges county-level governments with supervising mines in their jurisdictions. China’s Mineral Resource Law forbids mining without a permit. In the ore-abundant regions of Shanxi and Henan provinces where pit wash mining is rampant, a number of officials have been sentenced for “dereliction of duty,” court records show.  

After Liu’s case, the task force from the Jiangxian County natural resource bureau reassessed all mines in the Liceyu Valley area and increased patrols for illegal mining. Yuncheng City government also pledged to tighten supervision of officials and set up a more rigid accountability system.