We’ve all heard the stories of social unrest, environmental damage, human rights abuses and resource wasting attributed to the mining of precious gems and metals; unfortunately in some cases, they’re true. It’s been estimated it leaves 20 tons of waste material to mine enough gold to produce an 18kt gold wedding ring weighing just 1/3oz. That figure doesn’t even include the overburden, the soil and rock that has to be removed to reach the ore in the first place.
There are huge environmental concerns associated with the run-off of acids and toxic metals into waterways, the release of mercury into the air by burning, and even cyanide. Many gold mines use heap leaching , which involves dripping a cyanide solution through massive piles of ore. The resulting solution collects into a pond which is then subjected to an electro-chemical process to recover the gold. A staggering 99.99% of the heap becomes waste, and these huge (up to 100m high!) toxic piles are usually just abandoned. If you think this is a developing world problem you’d be wrong as the mining of metals was the greatest toxic polluter in the USA in 2010.
The human impact is equally grevious. Indigenous people have been forcibly removed from land, workers paid poor wages for working in dangerous conditions (witness 5-months of strikes by platinum miners in South Africa), and then there’s the inevitable rise of resource conflicts.
Overall it’s not a pretty picture, but there are attempts to make a difference, at least on a smaller scale. The Fairmined initiative attempts to work with small-scale mining communities to identify and diagnose problems and then offer a certification and audit system for the gold to be sold to end-users. While not a charity, the process certainly has merit.