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Down to Earth

Arsenic pollution: A toxic legacy of France's gold rush

The town of Salsigne, in southwest France, was once home to the largest gold mine in Europe and the largest arsenic mine in the world. The mine closed in 2004 but left in its wake one of the most polluted sites in France. The Down to Earth team went to take a closer look.

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Despite efforts to contain the damage, arsenic pollution is still widespread today, creating tensions between authorities and the residents who live in France's Orbiel valley. Approximately 12 million tons of arsenic are buried beneath two hills not far from the village of Conques-sur-Orbiel.

The toxic waste spreads easily in the soil and along the winding rivers, a poison for the valley of Orbiel. The government agency in charge of securing the Montredon hill has installed a waterproof membrane to contain the toxic waste. Between 20 and 30 million euros have already been spent, a figure that's rising sharply as the membrane is believed to be leaking.

On the neighbouring hill of Artus, where there is no protective membrane, the polluted water is collected and treated. Approximately 20 percent of the arsenic is removed, leaving 80 percent free to return to the river. According to the authorities, it could amount to four tons per year, but local associations say that number could be at least twice as high.

The Down to Earth team brings you the first episode in a two-part series about the toxic legacy of gold mining in southwest France.

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