Lust for Gold

The Hindu Sunday July 13th 2008.

Gold is costlier than you think. -- KAMALA BALACHANDRAN

We keep a constant tab on the price of gold. We fret when the price goes up and moan that even a small buy makes a big hole in our pockets. Yet we turn a blind eye to the bigger, ecological price that our planet is paying to sustain the lust.

The popular images of gold miners from the Gold Rush, panning for gold nuggets in a mountain stream or digging into thick veins of gold with pick-axes, bear almost no resemblance to the way gold is mined today. Most rich veins of gold, where gold could be separated in solid chunks from the surrounding ore, have been exhausted.

Today gold is primarily found in very low concentrations at less than 10 grams per ton. Hence the only way to extract gold found in such small quantities is to create large open-pit mines through blasting, and excavating large amounts of ore. To get enough gold needed to make a simple gold wedding band, at least 2.8 tons of earth is excavated!

More waste generated

Thus the gold-mining industry generates an enormous amount of waste compared to its product. The mining pits are huge ‘holes’ on the face of the land and though regulation demands that the pits should be filled back, there is never a 100% compliance. Excavated ore is pulverized into a fine powder in order to free the gold. The powder is combined with water to form a muddy mix called slurry. It is at this point that the ore is treated with a liquid solvent to dissolve the gold.

Though gold is one of the most chemically stable elements on earth, it can be dissolved by cyanide. The solvent most commonly used is hydrogen cyanide, which is also one of the deadliest poisons. The cyanide-treated ore wastes, from which gold has been removed are called tailings and these are stored in huge ‘tailings dams’. In the year 2000, heavy rain, ice, and snow caused a breach in a tailings dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulting in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed.Drinking water supplies were cut off for 2.5 million people and nearly all of the fish in the surrounding waters were killed.

Environment hazards

Only the bigger mines use cyanide. Millions of small-scale miners from the Amazon valley to the Philippines use the more harmful chemical mercury, to separate gold from ore. Of the 500,000 gold miners tested in Brazil, more than 30% showed mercury levels above the World Health Organization’s tolerable limits.Damage to water and water resources is the worst environmental consequence of gold mining. The water table has fallen as much as 1,000 feet around some of the largest open-pit gold mines in the region.

Every major gold rush has meant death and devastation for local people at the hands of fortune-seekers. The hordes of gold miners coming in to mine gold bring in diseases for which the locals have little immunity. The foreigners bring in guns and alcohol and destroy nature wherever they go. Their machines spill oil into the rivers and kill the life existing in them.

Over 85% of gold mined today ends up as jewellery tomorrow. Gold mining is not an essential industry like the harvesting of food. It is certainly not sustainable, nor is it just. The cumulative impacts of gold mining worldwide, on local economies and ecosystems, are at least as bad as those of industrial forestry.

Is the yellow metal worth the price?

So the next time you head to buy the glittering metal, ask yourself, is it worth it ?