Despite gold's pristine reputation, extracting it can be messy business as I learned one sunny day in mid-April of last year. There in Long Canyon, on the edge of Nevada's Ruby Mountains, ridgetops lay flattened, and hills ribboned with carved out steppes. Despite the fact that water trucks routinely coated the dirt roads, dust billowed up over the completely reformed landscape. This is a picture of your modern gold mine.
When most of us think of gold mining, if at all, we envision digging Seven Dwarf's style out of mountain caves (though technically they're diamond miners), or panning for gold out of area waterways. Most of modern gold mining, however, is neither. Fifty-two percent of gold mining is like this—an open pit mine where you tear apart the earth from the top down.
Specifically, roughly 12-percent of the world's gold is produced in this kind of mine – an open pit leach mine. Metallurgical experts, employed by mining corporations, test the soil for the presence of gold in tiny concentrations. If the soil's concentration of gold is high enough—say five to 10 grams per ton or a bit more than half to one part per million—you've struck pay dirt. The soil is rich enough in gold to make what's known as leach mining worth the effort.
In leach mining the soil is dug up and placed in a container known as a leach pad were cyanide is trickled over it. The cyanide dissolves and separates the gold where it's pumped to a refinery, recovered along with any byproducts like silver, or mercury. The cyanide is either stored in a plastic lined pond, or reused.
Here in Long Canyon, "The outdoor leach pad is 300 feet high," said Lisa Becker, a spokesperon for Newmont Mining who own this mine. Based in Colorado, Newmont is one of the world's largest mining companies. They have mines in Peru, Australia, Ghana, Peru Indonesia, and here in Nevada where they own or control mineral access to 2.3 million acres, about a third of which is public land—our land— although only 160,000 acres is currently in use according to Becker. The environmental impact of such an operation is significant.
First, there's the issue of the cyanide itself. In a good mine—and by most accounts Newmont's Long Canyon Ranch is a good mine—the waste products are properly stored and treated. In a bad mine, like the Baia Mare Aurul gold mine in North Western Romania the waste water bursts and pours 130,000 cubic meters of waste water into one of the biggest river tributaries in Hungary. Even before the dam burst, fish had disappeared from its rivers for some 60 years, killed off by the cyanide leaking from the mine.
While this risk can be mitigated, the destruction of the land itself remains fixed. I'd come to Newmont to see the impact of mining on the greater sage-grouse—a bird whose population in recent years have declined precipitously. Last fall a bitter debate raged over whether or not the bird should be listed on the endangered species list. The Newmont Mine had a lek, or sage-grouse mating ground, roughly six miles away from the mine site according to Jeff White the Director of Environmental Stewardship for Newmont Mines. But they've been mostly dormant—the birds weren't coming anymore.
"There's too much disturbance for the sage-grouse," said Pat Deibert the National Sage Grouse Coordinator for US Fish and Wildlife service.
You can hardly blame the birds. If I took your home, removed all of the food, tore up the flooring, and paraded a host of 14-wheeler trucks outside your window, you too might head elsewhere.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 requires mines like Newmont's to backfill old holes when they're done mining, and restore the land to a point where nature can take over. And Newmont, which has won numerous environmental awards, mostly does. But White said, "It takes 10 years to carve out a pit, but eight years to fill it in. And we won't fill in a pit if there's still gold in a pit, but it's uneconomical to mine it at current prices, or if it's ecologically harmful."
And where do the fruits of this destruction go?
"Seventy percent of the gold is used in jewelry," said Becker. Worldwide roughly 78-percent of gold is turned into jewelry. If you're wondering if gold's environmental footprint is worse than other metals—it is. The reason lies in gold's high demand and high price around $1200 dollars an ounce.This allowscompanies to profitably extract much lower grades of gold—and thus do a lot more digging and processing—than they would at lower prices.
It's important to keep in mind that Newmont is a best case scenario—where things are done by the book. There's no way to be sure that the gold you're buying wasn't from, say, this gold mine in Venezuela where up to 28 miners were killed over a claim dispute, or this community in Kalimantan, Indonesia, where residents still drink from waterways tainted with mercury from the region's gold mine.
A lot of environmental problems have complicated solutions—this one's pretty simple. Buy less gold. And encourage others to do the same.
Reporting for this trip was made possible by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.