The Environmental Disaster That is the Gold Industry (Smithsonian Magazine – February 14, 2014)

The mining industry has had a devastating impact on ecosystems worldwide. Is there any hope in sight?

A global campaign to boycott what activists are calling “dirty gold” gained its 100th official follower three days before Valentine’s Day.

The pledge was launched in 2004 by the environmental group Earthworks, which has asked retail companies not to carry gold that was produced through environmentally and socially destructive mining practices. Eight of the ten largest jewelry retailers in the United States have now made the pledge, including Tiffany & Co., Target and Helzberg Diamonds. The No Dirty Gold campaign is anchored in its “golden rules,” a set of criteria encouraging the metal mining industry to respect human rights and the natural environment.

While the list of retailers aligned in their opposition to dirty gold continues to grow longer, most gold remains quite filthy. The majority of the world’s gold is extracted from open pit mines, where huge volumes of earth are scoured away and processed for trace elements. Earthworks estimates that, to produce enough raw gold to make a single ring, 20 tons of rock and soil are dislodged and discarded.

Much of this waste carries with it mercury and cyanide, which are used to extract the gold from the rock. The resulting erosion clogs streams and rivers and can eventually taint marine ecosystems far downstream of the mine site. Exposing the deep earth to air and water also causes chemical reactions that produce sulfuric acid, which can leak into drainage systems. Air quality is also compromised by gold mining, which releases hundreds of tons of airborne elemental mercury every year.

Gold has traditionally been a gift of love, and, not surprisingly, jewelry sales spike around Valentine’s Day. According to a recent survey released by National Jeweler, about 20 percent of Americans who planned to give a Valentine’s Day gift this year said they would be buying jewelry—sales estimated to total about $4 billion. Thus, activists see Valentine’s Day as a prime opportunity to educate consumers and stifle the trade of dirty gold. Payal Sampat, Earthworks’ director of the No Dirty Gold campaign, wants consumers to understand the back story of the gold industry. This, she believes, would spur an improvement in mining practices.

“We believe gold and metal mining can be done much more responsibly,” Sampat says. “It’s feasible, but consumers need to think about the impacts they have when they buy jewelry.”

But the demand for gold is tremendous now. Several months ago, gold’s value hit $1,800 an ounce. It has since dropped to roughly $1,300—though that’s still five times its price in the late 1990s. The money to be made at all levels of the industry, from laborers knee-deep in mud to executive officers reaping thousands of dollars a day, creates powerful incentive to find gold—even though doing so may now be harder than ever. Alan Septoff, communications manager for the No Dirty Gold campaign, says that easily accessible gold has become scarcer and scarcer through time. “What we have left in most mines is very low-quality ore, with a greater ratio of rock to gold,” Septoff said.

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