Beautiful and desirable, few people see beyond the sparkling surface of gold. This is true of both jewellers and the public. The many down sides of this fabulous metal are not commonly known. One of the most devastating is the toxicity and volume of the waste produced by the mining process.
Only 0.00001% (one hundred thousandth of 1 percent) of ore is refined into gold - the rest is waste.
In the US, metals mining was the top polluter in the most recent data.Creating 46% of all toxic waste of ALL industries combined. 96% of arsenic emissions and 76% of all lead emissions.
Some toxins come from the ore itself e.g. heavy metals like mercury,arsenic, selenium and lead often drain out of the piles of waste rock. Others are introduced intentionally during extraction. Called 'heap leaching' the ore is crushed, piled into heaps and sprayed with cyanide. This trickles through the ore bonding with the gold. This solution is then processed to separate the gold and cyanide which gets stored in industrial ponds for reuse. This is an ongoing process with one layer of ore being layered over the other. This goes on for decades and results in the almost inevitable contamination of the surrounding environment.
Tailings a slimy highly toxic waste product is disposed of by pouring it into makeshift dams, which get enlarged as the waste levels rise. This results in an often unstable structure and tailings dam failures account for 3/4 of all major mining accidents over the last 25 years.
Some mines don't even bother with tailing dams and choose instead to pump them directly into nearby rivers, technically known as 'riverine tailings disposal'. This poisons the aquatic ecosystem, clogs rivers and can disrupt entire watersheds. This is banned in many countries, but continues illegally. Dumping into the oceans however is still practiced freely. US owned Minahasa mine in Indonesia dumped over 4 million tones of waste into Buyat Bay in the 7 years it was producing. This suffocates coral reefs, poisons fish and in local communities children have tested dangerously high lead and cyanide levels. As a result of public outcry, many mines have simply moved further out into the ocean and now dump in deeper water.
All this waste and pollution is only the first phase of the journey gold takes before it reaches you and the above only just touches on the issues and destruction involved. If you would like to find out more about what gold goes through before it reaches you, please click here to go to Earthworks' No Dirty Gold campaign.
Thank you to Michelle at avasarah for permission to reproduce this article
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