Printer Friendly

For the love of gold.

The world is in the midst of the biggest gold rush ever, and prospectors are literally moving mountains to get at the precious metal.

Almost every conceivable crime has been committed in the name of gold. The lustrous metal of kings has been synonymous with wealth - and power - since the dawn of civilization. Gold is so rare, beautiful, and malleable that wars have been waged for it, empires toppled, and uncounted lives lost. But in all the tales about the lust for gold, one side of the story is usually left out: the metal's prodigious environmental cost.

Gold occurs in such minute quantities in the Earth's crust that miners must sift through small mountains of soil and rock to obtain even a few ounces. Only the metal's high price - more than $300 an ounce - makes the search pay off

Not included in miners' balance sheets, however, is the damage gold mining inflicts upon ecosystems and people. The waste generated each year by gold mining operations could fill enough 240-ton dump trucks to form a bumper-to-bumper convoy around the equator. On a more personal scale, the material removed by U.S. miners to produce enough gold for an average pair of wedding bands could make a 6-foot wide, 6-foot deep, 10-foot long pile in the happy couple's backyard.

Gold mining has a long history of environmental destruction. An epic series of lawsuits - perhaps the first environmental court cases in the United States - were fought in the 1870s and 1880s over gold miners' devastating impacts on California rivers. In dozens of countries, mercury-laced tailings, eroded land, and acid mine drainage remain as visible, toxic legacies of gold rushes that occurred generations ago.

But gold rushes are not just the stuff of history. In recent years, the world has been gripped by a new epidemic of gold fever, and production has expanded sharply - from 1,219 tons in 1980 to an estimated 2,170 tons in 1992. With this increase has come an unprecedented worsening of the industry's impacts on the environment.

In North America and Australia, a new technology called "cyanide heap leaching" has made it economically attractive for large mining companies to level entire mountains of low-grade ore in the search for gold - often poisoning soil, water, and wildlife in the process.

At the same time, millions of small-scale miners have flooded distant corners of the planet in their quest for gold. The effects have been horrific. In the Amazon basin, site of the largest gold rush, mining is rapidly eroding sods, clogging streams with silt, and contaminating ecosystems and people with mercury. In their reckless pursuit of gold, miners have ravaged indigenous peoples in remote areas from Brazil to the Philippines by introducing new diseases and damaging ecosystems crucial to the tribes' survival.

And what are the rewards of all this devastation? Dividends for the shareholders of gold mining companies; riches for a tiny fraction of the world's small-scale miners and a meager - often impoverished - living for most of the rest; and gold jewelry for the small portion of the world's population wealthy enough to afford it.

Moving Mountains

Among the major metals, gold is exceptional for its scarcity. Iron, aluminum, and copper ores typically contain about 40, 23, and 1 percent metal, respectively. Gold ores average about 0.00033 percent metal - about one tenth of an ounce per ton.

Gold is found in two types of deposits: lode and placer. Lode deposits occur in solid rock, most often in well-defined veins. Placer deposits are gold-bearing gravels or sediments most often found in watercourses. Their gold content often can be traced to weathered lode deposits uphill or upstream. Gold prospectors often search for lode deposits by working up rivers whose sediments are known to contain gold. Substantial amounts of gold are also recovered as by-products of copper and silver mining.

Lode deposits can be worked from the surface - as can placer deposits on dry land - or by following veins deep underground. Some of South Africa's mines go down two miles. Placer deposits in rivers or deltas are usually worked by dredging or vacuuming underwater sediments.

For sheer destructive power, few human activities compare to gold mining. In both placer and lode mining, huge amounts of waste materials are generated. Miners produce, on average, nine tons of waste for every ounce of gold. To produce 2,170 tons of gold in 1992, they generated an estimated 650 million tons of waste. In fact, gold mining produces more waste each year than does iron mining, even though the world digs up 200,000 times more iron.

In placer mining, most waste ends up choking rivers downstream from miners' operations. The waste from lode mines is usually deposited in enormous piles or ponds. Much of it is contaminated with other metals, acid-forming chemicals, and solvents - most often cyanide - used to extract gold from ore. Mining wastes can cause acid drainage, heavy metal contamination, and other problems for centuries if not carefully stored.

Baubles, Bangles, and Beads

Beyond its scarcity, what accounts for the enduring demand for gold? One answer is that it possesses a range of qualities found in no other material. It is extremely malleable and ductile - skilled artisans can hammer it paper-thin or draw it into wire finer than hair. It does not rust or tarnish, and it is almost completely invulnerable to chemical reactions.

But the full explanation of gold's allure is more complex. Its worth is as much a matter of folklore and myth as it is practical: gold is valuable because value has always been measured in gold. Gold was used as money in virtually all ancient societies - Egypt, China, Persia, Babylon - and gold coins were remarkably standardized in weight and purity. These coins were seen as the most secure form of exchange, because gold was durable and hard to debase, counterfeit, or rapidly expand in supply.

Economists have been trying to break the link between gold and money for many years. In 1923, John Maynard Keynes called the gold standard a "barbarous relic." Though many countries stopped specifying the value of their money by weight in gold many decades ago, the United States - in whose currency most international business is transacted - only abandoned the system in 1973. Until then, the value of a dollar was defined by gold, which was officially priced at $35 per ounce. After the change, the price of gold shot up above $100. Gold was no longer money - or so the government said - but people still believed it was valuable.

They still do. Annual demand for gold, which was 2,815 tons in 1991, according to Gold Fields Mineral Services, publisher of an influential annual survey of the industry, is now greater than annual production. Gold being a tradable commodity, the gap between demand and what mines supply is met by investors and governments selling a portion of their holdings.

Huge amounts of gold are held by state banks and private citizens. According to the U.S. Bureau of Mines, an estimated 95,000 tons of gold - 85 percent of all the gold ever mined - are circulating in the world economy. Of this, about 36,000 tons are held by governments and about 59,000 tons by companies and private citizens.

About 15 percent of the gold used each year goes to industry, with about 5 percent going to electronics alone. Gold is unsurpassed as an electrical contact and conductor, though cheaper substitutes - including silver alloys and copper - will do for all but the most critical applications. Other leading uses of gold include decorative coatings for a variety of products and for dental fillings. Other materials are good substitutes for gold fillings, which are particularly popular in Japan and Germany, but many people view a glint of gold in their smile as a status symbol.

Jewelry, however, is the dominant use of gold, comprising about 85 percent of the market. In the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, where most of what is sold is made from lower-grade alloys ranging from 33 to 75 percent (8 to 18 karat) gold, jewelry is primarily viewed as an adornment. Investors in those countries usually buy gold in the form of bars and coins, though there are fewer people sinking their money in gold today than in the 1970s, when inflation rates were much higher. In Asia and the Middle East, jewelry is the most common way to invest in gold. Gold jewelry in these regions is commonly 88 to 96 percent (21 to 23 karat) gold.

In both markets, however, gold jewelry has sharply increased in popularity. The amount of gold going into jewelry soared from 513 tons in 1980 to an estimated 2,300 tons in 1992. Gold has become a fashion trend. In the United States, for instance, it's not uncommon for teenage boys to wear heavy gold chains as a status symbol. And rising incomes in Asian countries - where savings rates are high and gold is a popular investment - have also driven up the demand for jewelry.

The Rush Is On

The gold rush of the 1980s was not spurred by a sudden discovery - as were many of the most celebrated bouts of gold fever in the past - but by a sharp rise in the metal's price. In January 1980, the price of gold briefly soared to an all-time high of $850 per ounce. While the price did not remain there, it has stayed well above previous levels ever since (see Figure 1).

The price increase transformed the gold market. World production grew 78 percent between 1980 and 1992. U.S. gold production increased elevenfold, Australian output grew eight times over, and Canada's tripled (see Figure 2). Virtually all of the increase in production occurred outside of South Africa and the Soviet Union, the two historically dominant gold-producing countries. In the Soviet Union and its successor states, political turmoil and inefficient operations limited output. In South Africa, low ore grades and rising labor costs - a result of increasingly successful battles by miners' unions for higher wages and better working conditions - had a similar effect.

In 1980, South Africa and the Soviet Union produced three-fourths of the world's gold (55 and 21 percent, respectively), while the United States, Canada, and Australia together accounted for only 7 percent of the total. But by 1992, South Africa only held 28 percent of the market, and the share of the former Soviet states was down to 11 percent. Australia and North America, meanwhile, were producing a third of all gold. Third World countries accounted for much of the remaining quarter of the market.

A very large share of the recent production increase in the United States, Canada, and Australia has come from the use of the new, very cheap cyanide heap leaching technique. Heap leaching predominates in Nevada, the leading U.S. gold-producing state, where 177 tons of the metal are mined each year.

Heaps of Trouble

In 1969, the U.S. Bureau of Mines published an obscure paper entitled Recovering Gold From Stripping Waste and Ore by Percolation Cyanide Leaching - and spawned a revolution in the way gold is mined. This new gold extraction technique - heap leaching - was to become the primary method used by U.S. and Canadian miners, and it soon spread outside North America.

Heap leaching is an adaptation of a century-old gold extraction technology, called vat leaching, in which gold is obtained by soaking crushed ores with sodium cyanide solution in huge containers. The new method is different in one major respect: the process is accomplished out in the open, eliminating the need to build a central processing facility and carry ores to it.

In heap leaching, miners spray a cyanide solution on huge piles of crushed ore. After repeated circulation through the ore, the liquid is collected and processed to remove any gold. The technique has redefined what is a workable grade of ore, making it profitable to mine ores - or even some old mine wastes - that contain as little as 1/50th of an ounce of gold per ton.

Thanks to heap leaching, many sites that might have been underground mines in a previous era are now surface operations. The result has been an enormous expansion in the amount of material handled by miners. Where U.S. miners handled 990,000 pounds of soil and rock in 1980 to obtain each pound of gold, a decade later the waste output per pound of gold had tripled - to about 3 million pounds.

Heap leaching can cause several types of environmental problems. An underlying problem is the high toxicity of its active agent. A teaspoon of 2 percent cyanide solution can kill a human in seconds. Although lower concentrations - to .015 to .25 percent - are used in heap leaching, reservoirs used to collect cyanide solution often attract and kill waterfowl. For example, more than 1,000 birds were killed in the first year of operations at the McCoy/Cove gold mine near Battle Mountain, Nevada, where the operators unsuccessfully used loud cannons, remote-controlled boats, and other devices to frighten away birds.

Leaching operations and collection ponds also tend to leak, which poses a threat to underground drinking water supplies, lakes, and streams. Although cyanide can break down rapidly outdoors - particularly if soils or waters are acidic - it can remain at toxic levels for long periods in groundwater.

Leaching operations and collection ponds also tend to leak, which poses a threat to underground drinking water supplies, lakes, and streams. Although cyanide can break down rapidly outdoors - particularly if soils or waters are acidic - it can remain at toxic levels for long periods in groundwater.

Fish are particularly sensitive to cyanide contamination. In October 1990, heavy rain caused a dam break at a leaching reservoir at the Brewer Gold Mine, near Jefferson, South Carolina. Ten million gallons of cyanide solution spilled into a tributary of the Lynches River, killing as many as 10,000 fish. And near Del Norte, Colorado, persistent leaks from the Summitville gold mine have wiped out aquatic life in a 17-mile stretch of the nearby Alamosa River. The Environmental Protection Agency is now spending $800,000 per month to prevent additional leaks from the mine - whose owner has declared bankruptcy - and expects a full cleanup to cost $20 million.

Heap leaching technology is much more common in the United States, Canada, and Australia than in developing countries. Most large mining operations in the Third World make use of high-grade ores that are worth processing by contained methods, which are both more expensive and more efficient. However, much of the increase in developing countries' gold production has come from smaller-scale mining operations.

Mud and Mercury

After the price of gold skyrocketed in 1980, floods of people in developing countries joined the search for gold. Millions of small-time miners - called in various languages garimpeiros, galampsey, pailleurs, or artisans - fanned out into remote areas of the Third World.

Major gold rushes have broken out since 1980 in Bolivia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Indonesia, the Philippines, Venezuela, and various African countries. The best-known - and probably the largest - of all these is in Brazil, where as many as a million miners have invaded the Amazon basin. With them have come up to 4 million other people who depend on minding proceeds for their living, including miners' families, shopkeepers, boat operators, pilots, and prostitutes.

In Brazil, as in other countries, the miners and their followers streamed into the jungle because of the lure of riches and the lack of economic opportunity elsewhere. Many were small farmers or wage laborers, usually without their own land, who suffered from the increasing displacement of small Brazilian farms by large, mechanized operations. Most were illiterate or lacking in formal education.

This army of miners has had a tremendous impact on Brazilian gold production - and on social, economic, and environmental conditions in the Amazon area, as anthropologist David Cleary recounts in his 1990 book Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush. The official data on gold output by garimpeiros are not reliable, since most miners sell their gold on the black market to avoid paying taxes to government agents. Nonetheless, most analysts who have examined the question closely put small-scale production during the height of the rush, in the late 1980s, at more than 100 tons a year - which would have placed Brazil sixth on the world production list even before adding the output of the nation's large mines.

The methods used by small-scale miners are quite different from those in large, industrial mining operations, but they are equally destructive in their own right. Third World prospectors primarily rely on river dredging and hydraulic mining, as well as large open pits excavated manually.

In hydraulic mining, which is perhaps the most destructive of these operations, high-pressure water jets wash entire hillsides into sluice boxes, where the heavier gold is separated from other sediments. The process wreaked havoc in 19th-century California, as historian Robert Kelley recounts in his book Gold vs. Grain: "Huge hydraulic mining operations in the mountains disgorged enormous quantities of mining debris - mud, sand, and gravel - into the river canyons of the Sierra. In the spring floods this debris washed downstream to spread out over the flatlands of the Sacramento Valley, burying farms, halting river navigation, and causing disastrous floods. Marysville, Sacramento, and other river towns had to build miles of costly levees, property values dropped, river boats could no longer call at city docks, [and] the flow from city hydrants became a tuegid gruel of mud and water."

Downstream farmers and townspeople sued the miners and, after years of court and legislative battles, eventually prevailed. Although a California judge effectively outlawed hydraulic mining in 1884, the method is now widely used in Brazil and other countries.

Other types of placer mining, in which large quantities of sediments are sluiced and screened for gold, also cause tremendous damage. In Guyana, for example, new, more efficient dredges introduced into the Upper Mazaruni region in recent years produce so much silt as to make water undrinkable as far as 40 miles downstream, according to a 1990 report in New Scientist magazine. Such high levels of sediment can dramatically increase erosion and flooding, clog the gills of fish species adapted to cleaner water, and kill aquatic plants by blocking sunlight.

Perhaps the gravest long-term consequence of small-scale mining activities in Brazil, however, is the contamination of the Amazon ecosystem with mercury, which is used to capture gold in sluice boxes. Mercury is an extremely toxic metal that accumulates in the food chain and causes neurological problems and birth defects in animals and people who ingest it. Though the metal's effects can take years to surface, reported cases of mercury poisoning in the Amazon have been increasing in the past few years. Miners blend mercury with sediments dredged from river bottoms, then boil the mercury and gold amalgam with a torch, leaving the gold behind. In the process, much of the mercury is lost, either directly into watercourses or through evaporation.

Miners release an estimated 100 tons of mercury into the Amazon ecosystem each year. According to a 1992 article in Nature, an estimated 32 tons are released into the watershed of the Madeira River (a major Amazon tributary) alone. Mercury, levels in many fish species in the Madeira now exceed the maximum safe levels for human consumption set by many nations.

The Human Cost of Gold

Fernando Branches, a doctor in the Brazilian city of Santarem, has examined dozens of people with mercury levels above those considered safe by the World Health Organization. Significantly, few of his patients were miners - most were residents of riverside communities who eat a lot of fish. Doctors have also found elevated mercury levels in residents of mining towns.

Miners and fish-eaters in the Amazon basin are, therefore, unwitting subjects in a huge cxperiment on the accumulation of mercury in a large ecosystem. Though mercury poisoning can be a slow, subtle process, its long-term effects are likely to be devastating. In the world's most infamous mercury poisoning case, severe birth defects and brain damage first appeared more than a decade after mercury pollution of Japan's Minamata Bay began.

The gold rush has had other human costs as well. Conditions in the Brazilian mining camps - and those in many other countries - are similar to, if not worse than, those in the gold rushes of old. Disease, lawlessness, and dissolution are the order of the day. And the dream of instant wealth remains just that: few miners break even, fewer still get rich.

The risks associated with gold mining extend far beyond bullets and mercury. Many die in mining-related accidents. At Llipi, a mining camp in the mountains of Bolivia, hundreds of people were killed in 1992 when a mudslide buried most of the town. The slide was caused when tons of mining waste began to slip down the mountainside after heavy rains.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of gold mining, though, is on indigenous peoples. It has proved particularly ruinous for the native people of Latin America. As author Elizabeth Dore puts it, "The moment Columbus set foot on Hispaniola, mining replaced food security as the organizing principle of society." The conquistadors' desire for gold was so great that some of the people they conquered and enslaved thought the invaders ate the metal.

More recently, the massive incursions of miners into the Amazon have brought disease and environmental destruction to indigenous tribes. Best known is the plight of the Yanomami Indians, a tribe in the northern Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas that until recently avoided contact with the outside world. At least 15 percent of the tribe has died of malaria.

The Yanomami gained a reprieve in late 1991 when Brazil established a 22-million acre reserve for them in which mining is banned. Many miners left or were driven from the area by Brazilian police. Recent press reports have suggested, however, that the tribe now may again be beset by miners - and many other Amazon tribes are suffering with the same problems.

A New Gold Standard

Can the growing demand for gold be reconciled with the metal's environmental and human costs? For many Third World miners, the costs have been too great, and they have given up the search. The global gold rush has slowed in the 1990s, as gold prices have edged down closer to $300 per ounce. The Brazilian gold rush is clearly on the ebb, and though little information is available, so probably are gold rushes elsewhere in the Third World.

U.S. production is still growing rapidly, however. It was up 10 percent in 1992. Enormous new mines are now proposed for sites all across the West, from the Meikle Mine near Carlin, Nevada, to the McDonald Mine in the valley of the Blackfoot River in Montana, site of the film and novel A River Runs Through It. Damage from existing mines and the threat of expanded mining are generating concern among citizens in communities across the United States.

The damage done by gold miners has been a major factor in the growing movement for reform of the laws governing the U.S. non-fuel mining industry. Most clearly in need of reform is the General Mining Act of 1872, an archaic law that allows miners to purchase federal lands for bargain prices - $5 or $10 per acre, depending on the mineral they plan to extract. Bills are pending in both houses of Congress that would eliminate this virtual giveaway and set environmental standards for mining on public lands. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has expressed support for reform of the mining law.

There is a clear need, however, to better regulate mining activities on private as well as public land, since the effects can reach far off-site. A potential model for national legislation has been developed by Oregon, whose legislature passed tough environmental rules for miners in 1991. Among those rules are requirements for reclaiming mined land and posting a bond before mining begins that can only be retrieved when the site is properly cleaned up.

Other potentially useful policy measures include eliminating the special tax status of mining companies, which receive write-offs unavailable to other industries, and taxing sodium cyanide, the active ingredient in heap leaching. Former Congressman Less AuCoin (D-OR) introduced legislation in 1992 for a $0.50/pound tax on cyanide.

Additional regulation is also needed for large mines in developing countries, although lack of government finds and personnel make it difficult to enforce rules. For small-time miners, some South American nations, including Brazil, have established technical assistance programs to demonstrate less damaging methods of gold production. In particular, education on the hazards of mercury and on mercury-free production methods is badly needed.

Even with tighter regulation and better-run mines, however, the gold industry's environmental impacts will remain enormous as long as production is close to current levels, which is likely as long as the price for gold remains high. Added up, the local impacts of gold mining pose hazards for entire nations. While the industry may give a major boost to some economies, the costs of cleaning up the messes it creates could eventually outweigh its benefits.

In the long run, the only solution is to reduce demand for gold, and thus its price. Many heap leach mines probably would go out of business, for example, if the price of gold fell below $250 an ounce. And in the admittedly unlikely event that consumer demand for gold jewelry were largely eliminated, industrial uses could be supplied for centuries by the enormous amounts of gold now in government and private hoards.

There are rumblings of a new attitude toward gold from informed consumers. David Zimmerman of Pony, Montana, whose home is not far from active heap leaching operations, has proposed a nationwide consumer boycott of gold in the belief that the impacts of gold mining are unacceptable. The costs of the industry were summed up succinctly by another Montanan, Don Bachman, in a recent issue of Wilderness magazine: "We're trading mountains for neck chains and earrings." To "mountains" he might have added "ecosystems" and "human health."

But demand for gold will not be cut quickly or easily. However rational their arguments, those who struggle against the gold industry are fighting one of the most deeply ingrained human desires. The lust for gold will only diminish when miners and consumers alike begin to take into account the real costs of the metal of kings.

John E. Young is a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute and is the author of Worldwatch Paper 109, Mining the Earth.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Worldwatch Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:environmentally detrimental effects of gold mining
Author:Young, John E.
Publication:World Watch
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Can't live without it.
Next Article:Road to nowhere.

Related Articles
Loosening the Golden Handcuffs.
Diamonds Aren't Forever.
Kirkland Lake proposes composting facility.
Tarnishing the earth: gold mining's dirty secret. (Focus).
All that glitters ... gold mining leaves a toxic trail.
Mineral, water testing expand Kirkland Lake lab.
Mining California: An Ecological History.
All that glitters: the demand for gold is soaring. But some of the methods used to mine gold today take a heavy toll on the environment.
The gold standard: a hidden gold rush is taking place within the electronics recycling sector.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters