Gold is always thought of as a “precious metal” due to its rare nature and the difficulty (human labor) in obtaining it.
There is a real-life hidden cost of gold however, one that is almost always overlooked. Mining for gold, in this case, an entire mountain, requires the forest to be be clear-cut and laid waste. Cyanide is then used to leach out the microscopic gold particles, which in turns leaks into the water and streams with devastating consequences:
“Mining activities do not allow for any trees to remain standing, the trees must be clear-cut that is to say the mountain must be left bare to start digging and take out the rocks containing gold. Roughly a ton and a half of rock are needed to obtain one gram of gold. In order to obtain one kilo large amounts of material need to be ground and liquefied using millions of litres of water with cyanide, because cyanide acts as a magnet to the microscopic gold particles. A mine extracting gold and other metals using this procedure known as leaching requires as much water per hour as a peasant family uses in 20 years. To obtain such a quantity of water the company buys up the farms around the mine so nobody accuses it and diverts the streams to join them up, which is something clearly illegal. The water -contaminated with cyanide residues- that is no longer necessary goes to big lagoons where it continues poisoning any animal that drinks it. Sometimes the company puts up warning notices, but as neither the birds nor the animals know how to read, death and destruction continues.
While gold is valuable to humans, the cost of obtaining it to the rest of the biosphere is staggeringly high. Even modern gold recovery operations place extreme stress upon the environment.
45% of the gold being produced today comes from vast, open pit mines from a handful of big companies. In 2000, gold mining in the United States produced 353 tons of gold and more than a billion tons of contaminated waste rock. In a scale we can better understand, one gold ring generates, on average, 35 tons of waste rock.
This is a staggering environmental cost, one which we aren’t likely to consider. The process of using cyanide for leaching gold ore is just as dangerous as it sounds. Short term exposure to high levels harms the central nervous system, respiratory system, and cardiovascular system. Even very small concentrations kill fish, birds, and plant life. Massive quantities of this deadly poison, more than 2 million pounds annually, are used in this country for cyanide leaching.
The use of cyanide in mining poses an unreasonable risk of permanent environmental damage. Under ideal conditions, consisting of a neutral pH and the presence of oxygen and sunlight, cyanide breaks down into other, less toxic, compounds. However, under alkaline conditions it doesn’t, and under acidic conditions cyanide gas is formed. The plastic liners that are placed under the ponds and heaps pose a risk for this reason. Like your average garbage bag, seams may break, they can be punctured and may deteriorate, leaking the cyanide solution into the ground, where it cannot break down. If it contaminates underground water, there is no known way to get rid of it.
Ponds attract migratory birds, bats, and other wildlife and many thousands have been killed. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports successful “teaming” with several mining companies to look for solutions, which have included preventing toxic solutions from collecting, netting ponds, and installing cyanide recovery systems to treat mine wastes,’ there are, today, no environmental standards in place.
Tailing ponds are created with earthen or wooden dams and are subject to accidental spills, discharges, dam overflows, and water runoff. Cyanide is highly reactive with heavy metals, which are often significant components in the damage resulting from this type of event. Over and over again, failures to contain toxic waste have resulted in catastrophe. In perhaps the worst case of reckless mismanagement, called by some “the Exxon Valdez of the American mining industry,” a lethal combination of cyanide and heavy metal leaks from the Summitville Mine in southwestern Colorado killed all aquatic life along a twenty seven kilometer stretch of the Alamosa River . (Containment and cleanup were estimated to cost our government $80 million, as the mining company went bankrupt.)
In 2000, an overflowing tailings dam at a mine in Baia Mare, Romania released an estimated 50 100 tons of cyanide (as well as heavy metals) into the Somes, Tisza, and Danube Rivers, flowing 250 miles before eventually reaching the Black Sea. It contaminated drinking water used by 2.5 million people. Thousands of tons of fish were killed and a significant portion of the Tisza River was rendered undrinkable and effectively dead. The severe negative impact on biodiversity, the rivers’ ecosystems, the drinking water supply, and the socioeconomic conditions of the local population have resulted in it being named the worst environmental catastrophe in Europe since the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in 1986.
The use of cyanide based processes for extracting gold has been barred in only three places in the world. In 1997, the community of Bergama, Turkey, won a legal ban on cyanide, after convincing the highest administrative court that a large scale mining operation in their town was at odds with the Turkish Constitution and its guarantee of a healthy and intact environment. After years of suffering dozens of toxic leaks from mines, voters in Montana approved a ballot measure in 1998 prohibiting new open pit gold and silver mines that use cyanide as an ore processing agent. And in August 2000 the Czech Senate passed an amendment to the government’s geology bill that will ban the use of cyanide heap leaching technology by the gold mining industry.
While the wide sale use of cyanide is a relatively recent development, mercury has been used for centuries as a cheap and easy method to extract gold. Like cyanide, it is a deadly toxin. Once mercury enters the environment, its vapors become trapped in the atmosphere, precipitate onto the ground, and run into the water supply. When exposed to organic matter, methyl mercury is formed. This compound is stored in animal fat and accumulates over time, reaching levels in fish that can be thousands or millions of times higher than in the river. There is no end in sight to this legacy of the California Gold Rush, or its use in developing countries.
Mercury introduced into the lakes and rivers of California during the 1849 Gold Rush, estimated to be 7,600 tons, is responsible even today for 50% of exposure in the San Francisco Bay area.’ Eating fish from lakes and rivers in the Sierra Nevada Range is not recommended. Mercury can cause serious brain and nerve damage. The Latest U.S. Center for Disease Control figures indicate that 8% of U.S. women of childbearing age have mercury levels so high that their developing babies are at risk of neurological damage.
Mercury is still used by small scale “artisanal” miners because it can extract as much as 60% of the gold. It is mixed with gold bearing mud and gravel into an “amalgam,” which is then burned out with a torch or even over an open fire, releasing mercury vapor into the atmosphere and exposing miners and bystanders to toxic fumes. As much as 95% of all the mercury used in artisanal gold mining is released into the environment.
An estimated 13 million people work as artisanal miners throughout the world in at least 30 countries in Latin America , Africa, and Asia. They produce about a quarter of the world’s total gold output, primarily using mercury. It is estimated that in the last 30 years, 2,000 metric tons of mercury has been used to extract gold in one of the world’s most productive as well as fragile regions, the rainforests of the Amazon. Thirty percent of miners recently tested in Brazil showed mercury levels above the allowable World Health Organization limit, and there are reports that indigenous children are showing decreased performance in tests, an indication of damage to the central nervous system.
Perhaps the worst environmental consequences of mining have to do with water. During the California Gold Rush, a mining technique employed by the Romans was revived. For the “hydraulicking” process, water was diverted through a system of canals to high holding tanks, then directed in jets to wash away entire hillsides. Thousands of acres of forest were cut for timber for the dams and flumes, and by 1855 the foothills were laced with 4,500 miles of canals. An estimated 13 billion tons of debris was sent downstream to San Francisco, silting the bay, turning hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland into “sludgy desolation,” and taking out the city of Marysville on the way. The process was finally outlawed for use in California in 1884, but Bay Area companies still provide the equipment for use in developing countries.
Today, water consumption during mining operations is a key issue. Mines in Nevada are responsible for 75% of the gold produced in the United States and 10% of the world’s annual production. And they consume more water than all the people in the state. There are hundreds of mines in Nevada, three dozen in the Humboldt River Basin alone. One of the state’s largest open pit mines a mile wide, two miles long and a half mile deep is so large that it can be seen from space.
Mines of this scale must be “de watered” by pumping out as much as 100 million gallons of water (from one mine), every day. Some of the water is used in the mining process, in heap leach piles that are 350 feet high, but most is just dumped into the river. The water table has been lowered more than 1000 feet in some areas. No one really knows what will happen when the pumps eventually stop, but it is likely that the open mines will pull water from the aquifer and form contaminated pit lakes. Springs, streams, and the Humboldt River may go dry, and the aquifer may never recover. To value gold more than water is to value money more than life. And the life that is being drained out of Nevada is coming from land that was the life of the Western Shoshone Indians. Skirting the 1862 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the United States has claimed ownership of the Indian territories and sold them to private companies that are now producing about 260 tons of gold each year.
Acid Mine Drainage
Unfortunately, these predictable and devastating consequences of mining aren’t the worst of it. Mining for gold involves blasting, digging, crushing, and exposing rocks to access small amounts of gold. One scientist has estimated that gold mining in the United States generates about a billion tons each of waste rock and tailings annually.
The waste rock often contains sulfides. One of the most common examples is pyrite. When sulfide bearing rock is exposed to the oxygen in the air and to water, a dilute sulfuric acid is formed. The problem known worldwide as AMD (Acid Mine Drainage) occurs when heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium, and zinc are dissolved from the rocks and washed into surface and/or ground water. Specialized microbes adapted to acidic conditions continue oxidizing the minerals and assist in the process. The Environmental Mining council of British Columbia calls AMD “the mining industry’s greatest environmental problem and its greatest liability… an acid generating mine has the potential for long term, devastating impacts on rivers, streams and aquatic life, becoming in effect a “perpetual pollution machine.”
Seeping from underground mines, washing down the exposed walls of open pit mines, soaking through piles of displaced surface rock (overburden) and stockpiled ore, and leaking from tailings ponds, AMD is an enormous problem because of its potential cumulative damage to the environment. “Once it starts, AMD can effectively sterilize an entire water system for generations to come turning it into a biological wasteland and a huge economic burden.”
AMD costs millions annually to mitigate and is impossible to reverse with existing technology. Drainage from the recently abandoned and bankrupted Zortman Landusky mine in Montana contaminates nearly every stream in the area and is so severe that water treatment will be required in perpetuity. Officials have estimated that cleanup will cost $33.5 million in addition to the $30 million bond posted by the (now bankrupt) mining company, but the actual cost could be even higher.
According to the Mineral Policy Center, there are 557,000 abandoned mines in the United States , mostly in the west. And according to EPA studies, at least 40% of western watersheds are contaminated by mine waste and continue to carry serious threats to the health and safety of communities downstream. Total clean up estimates range from $32 billion to $72 billion.
Riverine and Submarine Tailings Disposal
Although the practice of “riverine tailings disposal” was discontinued in the United States a hundred years ago and is essentially illegal in both the U.S. and Canada , several North American mining companies continue to dump tailings into the rivers of third world countries. A similar practice of disposing toxic tailings by piping them to the ocean floor, called “submarine tailings disposal,” (STD) violates international agreements that protect the marine environment and is not permitted in the U.S. and Canada . The impacts of STD and riverine tailings disposal are frequently much more devastating and widespread than predicted by the companies and their effects are immediate, long term, and impossible to counteract.
Practices like riverine and submarine tailings disposal are outlawed in most developed countries. It demonstrates a particularly abhorrent environmental double standard for mining companies to do in the developing world, where strong environmental safeguards may not yet exist, what they are not permitted to do at home.
Since 1994, the new gold rush prompted more than 70 developing countries to change their laws in order to attract foreign gold mining companies. During the following five years, exploration investments doubled in Africa, quadrupled in the Pacific, and expanded six times in Latin America . The rush for gold has propelled extensive mining in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Uzbekistan.
Unfortunately, the shameful manipulation of indigenous people for gold has a long and brutal history. From the earliest times, the lust for gold motivated wars over land as well as the enslavement of peoples to extract it from the earth. During the California Gold Rush the Native American population was reduced from 150,000 in 1846 to about 17,000 in 1900 due to enslavement, murder, and deaths caused by malnutrition and disease. Recent books documenting this genocide through firsthand accounts leave no doubt that mourning 1849 would be more appropriate than celebrating its anniversaries.
Dozens of native populations around the world have already been devastated, and it is predicted that half of all gold produced in the next 20 years will come from indigenous lands. It is difficult to imagine a greater clash of civilizations than what occurs when a multinational mining corporation decides to extract gold from an area that is home to an indigenous population, bringing changes that disrupt those peoples’ livelihood, cultural traditions, and spiritual connections to their land.
The imposition of massive industrial projects on traditional populations often without their consent and against their will leads to disastrous consequences. Representatives of communities and groups affected by mining from Asia Pacific, Africa, India, and South and North America met in London in 2001 to compare the impacts of mining on the lives of communities and ecosystems and to share strategies on how to confront the industry. The London Declaration demands a full recognition of community rights and refutes the unsustainable claims of the mining industry and the current models of “engagement” that are neither adequate nor fair. Their ongoing efforts seek to promote the “requirements and rights of the millions of people engaged in frontline struggle with the world’s fifth most important industry.”
I’ve taken a public position on the “lack of real investment” that gold actually represents for the individual investor, knowing that this market is highly manipulated and controlled. There are much better things to buy then something you don’t need, cannot eat or cannot even use for any practical purpose. The metal is much too soft to even be functional from a practical standpoint.
Gold’s luster and desirability is simply because it represents investment and profit potential. But its real cost is staggeringly high, one that the world cannot really afford to continue. Yet, there is no doubt that the world will do exactly that, clear cutting more forest and polluting more aquifers and streams and displacing more indigenous people in it’s quest for the glitter of gold. This is a human problem of a gigantic scale and unlikely, especially in today’s economic collapse environment, to be solved.
I recently witnessed gangs of illegal gold miners in the rainforests of Suriname, in north-eastern Amazonia. The miners were blasting at river banks with pressure hoses, devastating the ecosystem there. Once-pristine streams had become malaria-infested pools choked with sediment, the water stained bright red or yellow, and contaminated with mercury used by miners to amalgamate gold particles.
Because of such pollution, indigenous and other rural communities in many gold-bearing regions of Amazonia often cannot find clean water to drink. Fisheries are being decimated too; mercury accumulates as it moves up the food chain, reaching dangerous concentrations in the larger fish that local residents rely on for protein.
As the miners penetrate further into remote areas, they are provoking countless conflicts with local people. In northern Amazonia, the Yanomami indigenous reserve has been overrun by thousands of illegal gold miners who are poisoning streams, poaching wildlife and spreading malaria and foreign diseases to the Amerindians. Lawlessness, prostitution and armed clashes often follow, and many Yanomami have been killed. In Nouragues Nature Reserve in French Guiana, armed gold miners drove field biologists away from their study sites and, in 2006, murdered two guards attempting to defend the park.