Affordable Access

A critical review of the effects of gold cyanide-bearing tailings solutions on wildlife.

  • Donato, D B
  • Nichols, O
  • Possingham, H
  • Moore, M
  • Ricci, P F
  • Noller, B N
Published Article
Environment International
Publication Date
Oct 01, 2007
PMID: 17540445


Wildlife deaths associated with cyanide-bearing mine waste solutions have plagued the gold mining industries for many years, yet there is little published data showing the relationship between wildlife mortality and cyanide toxicity. A gap of knowledge exists in monitoring, understanding the causal relationships and managing risks to wildlife from cyanide-bearing waste solutions and tailings. There is a need for the gold industry to address this issue and to meet the International Cyanide Management Code (ICMC) guidelines. The perceived extent of the issue varies, with one study finding the issue inadequately monitored and wildlife deaths grossly underestimated. In Nevada, USA during 1990 and 1991, 9512 carcasses were reported of over 100 species, although there was underestimation due to reporting being voluntary. Of these, birds comprised 80-91% of vertebrate carcasses reported annually. At Northparkes, Australia in 1995, it was initially estimated that 100 bird carcasses were present by mine staff following a tailings incident; when a thorough count was conducted, 1583 bird carcasses were recorded. Eventually, 2700 bird deaths were documented over a four-month period. It is identified that avian deaths are usually undetected and significantly underestimated, leading to a perception that a risk does not exist. Few guidelines and information are available to manage the risks of cyanide to wildlife, although detoxification, habitat modification and denying wildlife access have been used effectively. Hazing techniques have proven ineffective. Apparently no literature exists that documents accurate wildlife monitoring protocols on potentially toxic cyanide-bearing mine waste solutions or any understanding on the analysis of any derived dataset. This places the onus on mining operations to document that no risk to wildlife exists. Cyanide-bearing tailings storage facilities are environmental control structures to contain tailings, a standard practice in the mining industry. Cyanide concentrations below 50 mg/L weak-acid-dissociable (WAD) are deemed safe to wildlife but are considered an interim benchmark for discharge into tailings storage facilities (TSFs). Cyanide is a fast acting poison, and its toxicity is related to the types of cyanide complexes that are present. Cyanide in biota binds to iron, copper and sulfur-containing enzymes and proteins required for oxygen transportation to cells. The accurate determination of cyanide concentrations in the field is difficult to achieve due to sampling techniques and analytical error associated with loss and interferences following collection. The main WAD cyanide complexes in gold mine tailings are stable in the TSF environment but can release cyanide ions under varying environmental conditions including ingestion and absorption by wildlife. Therefore distinction between free, WAD and total cyanide forms in tailings water for regulatory purposes is justified. From an environmental perspective, there is a distinction between ore bodies on the basis of their copper content. For example, wildlife deaths are more likely to occur at mines possessing copper-gold ores due to the formation of copper-cyanide complexes which is toxic to birds and bats. The formation of copper-cyanide complex occurs preferentially to gold cyanide complex indicating the relative importance of economic vs. environmental considerations in the tailings water. Management of cyanide to a perceived threshold has inherent risks since cyanide has a steep toxicity response curve; is difficult to accurately measure in the field; and is likely to vary due to variable copper content of ore bodies and ore blending. Consequently, wildlife interaction needs to be limited to further reduce the risks. A gap in knowledge exists to design or manage cyanide-bearing mine waste solutions to render such facilities unattractive to at-risk wildlife species. This gap may be overcome by understanding the wildlife behaviour and habitat usage of cyanide-bearing solutions.

Report this publication


Seen <100 times