Environmental Impacts of Mining
There has always been an element of madness behind our quest for gold. From the ancient Egyptians to the Californian gold rush, gold has played a fascinating part in world history and culture for thousands of years.
Today, driven by insatiable global demand, the price of gold is at an all time high. But, unlike past gold rushes, today’s rise is almost entirely about the soaring demand for jewellery, which consumes approximately 80 percent of newly mined gold. This frenzy has no clear end in sight and is fueling much criticism from environmental groups and communities near the mines.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that nearly all of the world’s easily accessible gold deposits have already been mined. Most of the gold left today is microscopic and is being wrung from the earth at an enormous environmental cost, most often in the world’s poorest corners.
Consider for example a simple gold wedding band. To mine this amount of gold miners must dig up and haul away an average of 20 tons of ore and soak it with diluted cyanide. Over the course of months and even years this poisonous solution works to separate the gold from the ore. At some of the world’s largest mines, miners move a half million tons of earth each and every day. That’s equivalent to approximately the weight of 2,755 Boeing 747s! For more information on this process see our section on open pit gold mining.
According to the World Gold Council, only 25% of annual global demand is being met by recycled sources.
In a society where aluminum cans and empty bottles are recycled religiously, how can we condone 20 tons of toxic waste for 1 wedding band? Approximately 80% of North American households have gold jewellery they consider unwanted, mismatched, broken, outdated, etc. There is a need for consumer education, more recycling and less harmful digging. There is a need to Rethink Recycle.
“Gold mining is toxic. Cyanide is used by mining operations to separate gold from ore at some mines. The average gold mine uses 1,760 tons of cyanide per year. A rice grain-sized dose of cyanide can be fatal to humans.” Earthworks/Oxfam America
“Some gold mines have become the near-equivalent of nuclear waste dumps that must be tended in perpetuity.” The New York Times
The Truth Behind Gold’s Glitter
• A single gold ring leaves in its wake at least 20 tons of mine waste.
• Open-pit gold mines essentially obliterate the landscape, opening up vast craters, flattening or even inverting mountaintops, and producing eight to ten times more waste than underground mining. Several of these large scale, open-pit mines are now visible from space.
• Cyanide is used by large mining operations to separate gold from ore. Cyanide pollution is a major concern. A rice-grain sized dose of cyanide can be fatal to humans; concentrations of 1 microgram (one-millionth of a gram) per liter of water can be fatal to fish.
• Between 1995 and 2015, approximately half the gold produced worldwide has or will come from indigenous peoples’ lands.
• Metals mining is the number one toxic polluter in the United States, responsible for 89% of arsenic releases, 85% of mercury releases, and 84% of lead releases in 2004.
• Metals mining employs just 0.09 percent of the global workforce but consumes as much as 10 percent of world energy.
• 120,000 tons of toxic waste spilled from the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania in 2000, contaminating the drinking water of 2.5 million people and killing 1,200 tons of fish.
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