The Harsh Reality of Gold Mining

Note: Article adapted from here.

The grandeur of gold is not enough to mask the ravaged lands, polluted water beds and continued destruction of our health and environment. Gold mining is a centuries old practice, and its impact is monumental. It is difficult to remain blissfully ignorant when the consequences are dire.

Dirty gold mining generates copious amounts of toxic waste. Modern practices of open pit mining and cyanide heap leaching produce approximately 20 tonnes of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring. The waste is filled with deadly chemicals like cyanide. A majority of gold mines dispose of this waste directly into the surrounding water supply. The Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea has destroyed entire marine ecosystems by releasing 5 million tonnes of toxic waste into the Pacific Ocean each year. As an industry, 180 million tonnes of toxic waste is released into the rivers, lakes and oceans yearly. To reduce the damage they cause, mines construct dams to place these toxic by-products into. Although, a step in the right direction, a portion of the pollutants continue to seep out and cause substantial damage. As of present, there are an estimated 3,500 dams worldwide, with one or two massive spills occurring every year. The aftermath of these spills is disheartening. In 2014, a dam in British Columbia spilled over 25 million cubic metres of cyanide-filled waste, destroying the entire surrounding ecosystem. This alarming figure can be compared to 9,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled to the brim with deadly runoff.

Another toxic chemical, mercury, is also heavily used in the traditional gold mining industry. It has caused immense harm to the health of miners and the environment. For each gram of gold mined, two grams of mercury is discharged. Each year an approximate 1000 tonnes of mercury is released into the environment; accounting for 35% of all man-made mercury pollution and surpassing coal-fired power plants. A mining city in the Peruvian Amazon, has recorded unsafe mercury levels in 80% of its inhabitants. However, mercury contaminates far more than just the mine’s surrounding environment. 70%of mercury in the U.S. comes from other countries, travelling through the atmosphere and water bodies. Mercury is also extremely difficult to dispose of.  The San Francisco Bay remains littered with the remnants of the California gold rush. This toxic chemical has been known to cause great impairments to vital organs, entire organ systems, neurological development and has even been linked to causing birth defects.

A significant consequence of dirty gold mining is acid mine drainage. A persistent issue wherein iron sulphides, found in rocks underneath mining sites, react with oxygen to produce sulfuric acid. This acidic water draining is 20 to 300 times more concentrated than acid rain. The harm it creates is amplified when the water reaches rocks and strips them of heavy metals, which seep into our water beds. Cadmium, arsenic and lead are poisonous, carcinogenic and cause harm to the health of neighbouring populations. This deadly process is difficult to put an end to. These acidic waters flow long distances and have caused generational damage to ecosystems. England, for example, continues to be plagued by the damage of acid mine drainage dating back over 2000 years to Roman mining sites.  

The demand for gold is accelerating at a rapid pace with no signs of stopping. It is crucial that the industry evolves its processes to ensure a sustainable future. Clean Mining, part of the Clean Earth Technologies Group, has a solution. The revolutionary process eliminates the use of toxic cyanide during extraction and replaces it with a non-toxic gold recovery reagent. This solution has set a new gold standard for miners worldwide and ensured the preservation of our environment.