Mining & the Environment

Part of the Gold exhibition.

Today, the global demand for gold is higher than ever. Mining remains the primary means of satisfying this demand--but it comes at a cost.

Mining has a long history of providing raw materials that are highly valued for their industrial, economic and cultural importance. But there are environmental costs to all mining--and gold mining in particular. The most productive gold mines today contain only trace quantities of microscopic particles of gold in rocks known as ore. Because of the very low gold contents of these ores, most modern mining operations require the excavation of massive quantities of ore from extremely large open-pit surface and underground mines. Hazardous chemicals such as mercury and cyanide-bearing solutions are used to extract their gold, and spills and leakage have occurred at mines around the world. Weathering of ores in these mines can also release sulfuric acid and other chemicals to rivers, streams and groundwater. In many cases, all water leaving a mine must be captured and treated for decades.

Today, new U.S. mines must, by law, commit money for environmental remediation, though in practice, the public often ends up paying many of these costs. Historically, environmental regulation was virtually nonexistent, and patchwork legislation still leaves some U.S. states with more protections than others. And while the U.S. has begun tightening its environmental policies, such restrictions vary widely overseas. Today, much gold mining occurs in developing countries, which depend on mining for income, but where environmental protections may be weak. Cleaner mining practices have been developed to reclaim cyanide used to process ore and prevent acids and other pollutants from reaching groundwater--but they increase costs. While responsible mining techniques prevent much larger cleanup costs later on, cheaper methods will likely remain in use until governments and industry create a consistent set of environmental regulations that is enforced worldwide.

Poor environmental management often comes with deficient labor practices. Both are hazardous to miners, who in many cases include children. There have been some improvements. In recent years several countries have greatly reduced the number of children in mining. Unfortunately, practices that prevent child labor and provide for the health, safety and welfare of miners are very inconsistent, especially among developing countries.

For most of us, gold mining evokes images of the California gold rush: brave, solitary prospectors searching in streams for gold nuggets, or scouring the hills for veins of gleaming metal. But a lot has changed since 1849. Most of the pure, easy-to-reach gold is long gone.