CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: It's All About the Bling-Bling by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

I don't want to say that we should slit their throats but they have to pay. They have ruined our lives.
Istvan Nagy speaking about those responsible for a cyanide spill on the Tisza River, Hungary

Large-scale and small-scale, toxic chemical-dependent gold mining damages landscapes, habitats, biodiversity, human health and water resources. Water is especially contaminated by cyanide, acid mine drainage and mercury from gold mining. We demand a ban on new, large-scale and toxic chemical-dependent gold mining.
Project Underground

It seems that humans have always been fascinated by gold, that soft, yellow, corrosion-resistant beautiful metal. Historically, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used gold in much of their culture, though after the fall of the Roman Empire, gold use fell out of favor. Later, with the discovery of the New World, gold was once again in vogue. Even with this newfound interest in gold, the real interest didn't come until the Gold Rush of 1848 near Sutter's Mill, California, much to the dismay of John Sutter. Before 1848, its been estimated that roughly 10,000 tonnes of gold had been produced since the beginning of time. After 1848, approximately 115,000 tonnes of gold has been produced; over 90% of the world's gold produced in the last 150 years. Much of that production has come at the expense of the environment.

One of the problems associated with gold mining and gold use is mercury pollution. For example if one wanted to gild (i.e. plate it) an object with gold, they would rub the object with an amalgam (a mixture in which mercury dissolves other metals) of mercury and gold. The object was then heated to evaporate the mercury and leave the gold behind on the object. Mercury amalgams have also been used to process gold and silver ore. The crushed ore is mixed with mercury, which dissolves the gold and/or silver. The remaining rock waste is then skimmed off of the top of the mercury pool and the mixture is then heated to boil off the mercury and leave behind the precious metals. This method of ore processing is still practiced today in many parts of the world (e.g. South America and Asia) and results in mercury pollution in both air and water. We should mention that the Romans used a process similar to this (i.e. they roasted the mercury-containing mineral cinnabar) to produce mercury itself, thus releasing mercury vapors to the air. The slaves and convicts they used to carry out the process had life expectancies of about six months.

While small gold mining operations (e.g. individuals, artisans, small companies) use the poisonous process outlined above, larger corporate gold mining operations use a "safer" method. For example, one mine in Colorado typically operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to obtain 50,000 tons of ore (rock with economically recoverable gold) and 85,000 tons of overburden (rock without economically recoverable gold) each day. The ore is crushed and piled into 35-foot layers in a valley leach facility (essentially a lined ditch) and a solution of sodium cyanide is sprayed on top of the pile. Just as water percolates through crushed, roasted coffee beans to extract the stuff that makes coffee, the cyanide solution percolates through the piles of gold ore to extract the gold. The liquid is collected and the dissolved gold is recovered from the liquid via electricity. This process recovers about 70% of the gold that was in the ore. We should mention here that the cyanide solution used by the mining companies is the same stuff that was in "Jim Jones' Kool-Aid" used in the world's largest mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. Cyanide is also the same compound used in the gas chambers of some states with the death penalty. And it is the same compound that was used by the Nazis in the concentration camps. This so-called "safer" method is in fact really quite dangerous.

Now, just because cyanide has been used to commit unspeakable acts, doesn't make use of all cyanide bad. Dangerous chemicals are safely used everyday around the world. What makes the use of cyanide bad in the case of gold mining is that the process is carried out in the open where there is huge potential for disaster and devastating consequences if disaster strikes, such as those in South Africa in 1994 (10 workers killed), Guyana in 1995 (all aquatic life in a 4-km river killed), Ghana in 1996, 2001, 2003 (river ecosystems destroyed) and in Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia in 2000 (thousands of tons of fish killed). Whether a result of human error or acts of nature, cyanide spills occur far too often leaving both environmental and economic devastation in their wakes. Something's got to give because in the end in has to be about more than just the bling-bling.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Find the current price of gold then look at all of the externalities involved in the mining and production process. Given all of the externalities you've examined, what should be the "true" price of gold?
  2. What could gold-mining companies do to prevent cyanide spills? How would it affect the price of gold?
  3. Do we really need to mine more gold? Could our current needs be served by the gold we have in reserve?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Artisanal Gold Mining without Mercury Pollution
    This is a very interesting article about mercury pollution from gold mining; sponsored by UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
  • Cyanide Management in Gold Mining
    Lots of information here about cyanide use and management in gold mining. There is also information about toxicity.
  • The Mineral Resources Forum
    From the website: "The Mineral Resources Forum (MRF) is an information resource for issues related to mining, minerals, metals and sustainable development. It seeks to engage a diverse set of users from governments, mining, mineral and metal companies and other concerned civil society institutions, and to promote an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach to mineral issues and policies".
  • Project Underground
    Project Underground supports communities threatened by the mining and oil industries. The article here is a brief press release calling for a ban on cyanide based gold mining.
  • Nevada Mining Association
    This is a site maintained by the Nevada Mining Association, which is pro-mining. There is a lot of interesting information here.
  • Environmental Mining Council of British Columbia - Image Gallery
    This site has about 40 images of mining operations and the problems they cause; very interesting.
  • Office of Industrial Technologies - Mining
    This is the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Industrial Technologies website.
  • All About Gold from the World Gold Council
    This is an extremely interesting site from The World Gold Council, with a decidedly pro-gold point of view.
  • The Discovery of Gold in California
    The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill is told here in the words of John Sutter. The pages related to the discovery of gold are housed on the site of the Museum of the City of San Francisco.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003