The Perils of Gold Mining: 'A Wedding Ring Produces 20 Tons of Waste'

The high dollar price of gold isn't the only cost: Mining for the precious metal around the world causes significant loss of land, contaminates groundwater supplies and leaves behind toxic waste that often ends up in the ocean. In a SPIEGEL interview, mining expert Keith Slack demands cleaner mining methods.

The collateral damage caused by the gold ring on your finger: "There are no proper environmental standards."
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The collateral damage caused by the gold ring on your finger: "There are no proper environmental standards."

SPIEGEL: What is the impact of the high price of gold on the mining of this precious metal?

Slack: It has led to a situation where there are more and more mines around the world, also in regions of Africa, Latin America and Asia that were not affected up until now. And the governments in these countries and regions mostly do not deal particularly effectively with the mining companies.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

Slack: There are no proper environmental standards, there are not enough laws which could protect the rights of the local residents. Take Guatemala, for example, where the rights of the indigenous people, who live in mining areas, are not taken into consideration. The mines spread over vast areas, also over the sacred sites of these people. They can be up to two kilometers wide and one kilometer long, and one can even see them from space. But once the land is gone, it has been destroyed forever.

SPIEGEL: It can never be used again once the gold has been extracted?

Slack: Enormous quantities of poisonous chemicals are used, particularly cyanide, which separates the gold from the stone. It is estimated that gold mines worldwide use 182,000 tons of cyanide each year -- a gigantic amount.

SPIEGEL: Cyanide is highly toxic. What are the consequences for the environment?

Slack: It gets into rivers as well as groundwater and can kill fish. The water is no longer drinkable or usable for agricultural irrigation. Sometimes even minimal standards are lacking. In Indonesia, the toxic mining waste is simply dumped into the ocean.

SPIEGEL: What are you trying to do about that?

Slack: We want the mining companies to secure the approval of local residents before they open a mine. Needless to say, the companies are not particularly keen to do so.

SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound particularly effective.

Slack: It is probably the most effective means we have. Currently there is a dispute going on in Nevada, where a company wants to turn the holy mount of the Shoshoni Indians into a mine, and they are resisting. So this doesn't only happen in developing countries.

SPIEGEL: Where are problems with the mines especially concentrated?

Slack: In Ghana a single mine has permanently displaced 10,000 people from their land. Another example is Peru, one of the most important metal exporting countries. The government there is not very effective in regulating the mines. Often, the local residents are completely on their own.

SPIEGEL: But what can you possibly hope to achieve if governments are even failing to achieve anything?

Slack: People know what effects mines can have, they exchange their experiences with others in similar situations worldwide and they offer resistance. When mining company Numont wanted to expand the world’s largest gold mine in North Peru in 2004, more than 10,000 people protested and blocked the access roads, forcing the temporary closure of the mine.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it also possible that the mines could bring needed jobs into poor rural regions?

Slack: The modern large mines are mostly on the surface and employ only a few people. The mines can be highly profitable, but the locals very seldom see any benefits. And, of course, there are also problems with working conditions and low wages in the mines.

SPIEGEL: Do the mines operate similarly worldwide?

Slack: We are particularly concerned because there are clearly double standards. In Europe and the United States the companies would never exhibit the behavior they get away with in developing countries.

SPIEGEL: How much waste is produced to extract enough gold for a wedding ring?

Slack: That produces 20 tons of waste.

SPIEGEL: Is this only loose rock that can be pushed somewhere, or is it poisonous waste?

Slack: The problem is that cyanide treated rock, when exposed to air, will give off sulphuric acids, like those contained in car batteries. This process continues forever and can permanently contaminate the groundwater. Even mines the Romans operated in what is today France still exude these substances.

SPIEGEL: That sounds just as problematic as cyanide itself.

Slack: It is an even bigger problem.

SPIEGEL: And what advice do you have for consumers, who aren't necessarily aware of the environmental and social damage caused by the gold they purchase?

Slack: We are trying to cooperate with large jewelers and mining companies to introduce certified gold which is produced according to higher environmental and human rights standards that would be similar to the standards applied to organic foods and fair trade products. So far, nothing like that exists for gold.

Interview conducted by Cordula Meyer.

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