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Gold mining around the world has caused tremendous environmental damage.
This fact, that gold is non-essential, sets the tone of the tragedy that is the global gold rush, led by companies like Newmont and Freeport McMoRan. This current boom is on a scale unimagined in bygone days. For every ton of gold the U.S. industry produces today it also generates three million tons of waste rock. On a personal scale, an average pair of wedding bands could make a 6-foot wide, 6-foot deep, 10-foot long pile of tailings in the happy couple's backyard.
South Africa is the world's leading producer; in 1997 it produced 494 tons of gold. For all the riches the industry represents in South Africa, every 1.86 tons of gold mined costs one life and 11.3 serious injuries through accidents. North America, particularly the western states of the United States, is still a substantial producer of gold. In one state alone, Nevada, the gold industry will leave three dozen huge open pits given their current operations. Each pit may be as much as three miles long, one mile wide and half a mile deep, and contain lakes that pose acid pollution problems.
Brazil is the biggest single small-scale gold producer, with annual production of 80 tons. Some 500,000 gold miners work in the Amazon region alone extracting gold by dissolving ore in toxic mercury. Tests in several mining communities in Brazil found that more than 30% of miners examined had mercury levels above the World Health Organization's tolerable limit.
In Africa it is less well-known what the condition and impacts of small-scale miners are, although they produce approximately 20% of Africa's gold. In the sub-Saharan region more than 1.5 million people work in the informal mining sector, while in Zimbabwe that figure is about 100,000. Here too the use of mercury is prevalent as a means to chemical extraction of the gold.
What Drives The Gold Industry?
The gold mining boom has not been spurred by a jump in prices, but is manufactured by the integrated 'mining-to-marketing' nature of the gold industry. The price of gold has been relatively stable at between US$350 to $400 per troy ounce for the last decade. In fact since January 1997 gold has been at its lowest price for three years at roughly US$300 an ounce. Expansion is driven by growing speculation, new exploitation technologies as well as some new markets.
The main motors behind the gold industry are a handful of multinationals who heavily promote jewelry consumption. Indeed concentration of power in this industry is staggering. In 1991, just over 20 companies delivered more than 66% of official global gold production outside of China. The world's two biggest mining companies RTZ-CRA and Anglo-American controlled nearly half this amount. In the last five years the concentration has become more extreme 'with a rush of acquisitions and ill-tempered spats' according to the Financial Times. Three companies in North America control 66% of the total market capital there : Barrick, Newmont and Placer Dome.
Demand for gold remains strong so long as middle-classes convert their affluence into the wearing of jewelry, a phenomenon the gold industry is banking on continuing. Asia is buying 70% of all new gold with India being the most important gold market in the world because there are now 150 million middle class people there with a disposable income. China is also a substantial and growing market.
A Legacy Of Poison
All mining has historically caused major environmental problems. One of the biggest problems is the fact that metals like gold are found in sulphide ores which when exposed to air become acidic. This in turn becomes sulphuric acid when brought into contact with water, a common enough ocurrence in areas with underground water supplies, dissolving toxic heavy metals like arsenic, copper and iron. This phenomonen is known as "acid mine drainage" and is harmful to animal, bird and plant life. Old mines, in particular, where shafts were sunk deep into the water table without any thought of future problems, often end up contaminating groundwater permanently.
Levels of copper as low as two parts of per million are considered lethal to humans while concentrations as low as five parts per billion can inhibit fish reproduction, which means that the fish population might dwindle over a period of years. Copper and sulfates concentrations exceeding one part per million can cause stomach and intestinal problems and kill animals like horses. Lead and mercury can kill humans and also cause stomach problems.
Cyanide: More Profits and More Poisons
In the last three decades gold miners have compounded this toxic impact with a new and additional problem -- a technology called cyanide leaching which involves pouring sodium cyanide solution over large piles of crushed rock (heap-leaching), abandoned dumps of pulverised ore that has once been sifted for gold (dump-leaching) or in large containers (vat-leaching) to extract the gold through simple chemical combination. The problem with this is the leftover cyanide, which can be re-used, but is more often stored in a pond behind a dam or even dumped directly into a local river.
Invented in 1887 in Scotland, cyanide leaching was first used at Witwatersrand in South Africa, but it was perfected in the 1960s by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and first commercialized by Newmont Corporation in the United States. This technology can extract over 99% of gold from an ore allowing miners to obtain gold flakes too small for the eye to see. It also means that the miners can extract gold from the waste left behind from old operations which sometimes left as much as a third of the gold behind.
Popular concern over this technique has focussed on the lethal impact of cyanide. A teaspoonful of two-percent solution of cyanide can kill a human adult. Cyanide blocks the absorption of oxygen by cells, causing the victim to effectively "suffocate." Mining companies insist that cyanide breaks down when exposed to sunlight and oxygen which render it harmless. They also point to scientific studies that show that cyanide swallowed by fish will not "bio-accumulate," which means it does not pose a risk to anyone who eats the fish. In practice cyanide solution that seeps into the ground will not break down because of the absence of sunlight. If the cyanide solution is very acidic, it could turn into cyanide gas, which is toxic to fish. On the other hand, if the solution is alkaline the cyanide does not break down.
Mining advocates insist there have been no reported cases of human death from cyanide spills but scientists and activists argue that wastes derived from the cyanide leaching process will affect fish and livestock. "The attitude (is) if you don't see corpses, everything is okay. There is good reason to suspect that a compound as aggressive as cyanide in lethal doses also has serious health effects in long-term chronic exposures at low levels," writes Philip Hocker, president of the Washington-based Mineral Policy Centre, in a paper entitled "Heaps of Gold, Pools of Poison."
The Coming Plague
The gold mining industry looks set to spread like a plague, even though current production is higher than ever, because demand for the metal outstretched supply by 40% in 1996. Gold fever is quite literally sweeping the globe, with production jumping 50% since 1980 and expected to increase by a further 15% before the turn of the century. In 1995, 3, 642 tons of the stuff were mined globally.
Most of the new gold is coming out of so-called developing countries including Argentina, Ghana, Guyana, Indonesia, Peru and Tanzania with less stringent 'waste minimization' requirements than the U.S. Old mining countries have also stepped up exploration and exploitation plans - Australia's production grew nine fold since 1980 and will rise another 40% by 1999.
In fact in 1995-96, over half of all exploration dollars in the entire mining industry was for gold, not for important minerals such as iron ore or bauxite. Disturbingly one out of five of these gold prospects was on indigenous territory or lands claimed by indigenous peoples. Within twenty years, with the decommissioning of many major existing mines, half of the gold produced is projected to come out of the lands of indigenous peoples.
In 1849 the California Gold Rush resulted in a genocide of its native people while today Freeport McMoRan, operators of the world's largest gold mine, have devastated five different indigenous groups on the western half of the island of New Guinea. The gold mining boom will set the stage for increased community dislocation, cultural erosion and environmental degradation in other communities.
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