I want to give you the best the world can offer and create to the best of my ability. To do so, I enjoy being an Eco-conscious Jeweler and simply being aware of creating green jewelry. To really know what I was up against, I did my research and wrote the following paper in 2009. It is educational and emotional as well as informative and inspirational. At the very least, you can see the reason I work only with SCS Certified (they set the global standards for sustainability) metals.
For stones, I’ll write a different article because as a Graduate Gemologist of the Gemological Institute of America, I am very opinionated on the topic of conflict-free stones and synthetic and treated stones.
by Mariel Heart
The symbolism of a wedding band is often too valuable for many people to put a price on it. Jewels that are inherited after being passed down through four generations may seem priceless because of their history. Indeed, as a symbol, jewelry may be priceless. However, the gold certainly is not. Gold is costing the planet and its people far more than the metal itself is worth. Not many consumers connect what they hold in their hands to the raw material mined from the earth, just as they are disconnected from the origin of the meat they eat. This is to no fault of the consumer. Industries try to shield their dirty practices in order to be profitable. With the inclination that there is more to the story than the hard-working and dedicated men of the 1949 gold-rush, one begins to wonder how gold mining affects the environment, and what is being done to help? Once one becomes aware of the damage, an effort of salvation and prevention ensues.
But before there is awareness, there is always ignorance. Twenty-two states in the U.S. mine gold and the United States is the fourth-largest gold-producing nation behind Australia, South Africa, and China (Gold mining in the U.S.). Gold mining is one of the most environmentally destructive and hazardous industries in the world. According to the Toxic Release Inventory “the top ten largest polluters in the U.S. are mine sites” (Water Impacts).
There are two main ways to mine gold: placer or hard-rock mining. Placer mining is when the gold has reached the surface of the earth and can be panned from streams or found with a metal detector. This form of mining is only viable to the independent miner. Judy Willingham from Kansas explains that placer mining is also hazardous:
Today (and historically) small-scale gold miners use mercury to “capture” the gold from the ore, forming a paste-like amalgam. The easiest method to separate mercury and gold is to heat the amalgam, driving off the mercury and leaving the gold behind. This method has been in use since Roman times, and older mining areas are commonly contaminated with mercury (among other things). Mercury in vapor form circulates in the atmosphere and ends up contaminating virtually every water body as rain carries it down from the atmosphere. Invertebrates pick up the metal, and it works up the food chain, showing high levels in predatory fish through bioaccumulation.
To be profitable at gold mining, large corporations stake claims to Federal and non-Federal lands to tap into scarce resources. When the gold is encased in rock, hard-rock mining is done. Hard-rock mining produces most of the world’s gold (Gold mining).
Once a mine is excavated, the ore that bears the gold is laden with sulfur is exposed. This is normally not exposed to the air, and remains safe. However, when air and rain mix with the exposed ore it leads to the formation of sulfuric acid, and the result is called “acid mine drainage.” It is one of the most hazardous and destructive results of mining. In “Mining Impacts,” Earthworks explains:
Acid-mine drainage can deaden entire streams, killing all aquatic life. The vast array of toxic chemicals released by the mining industry can also seriously harm birds and mammals. The average mine disturbs over a thousand acres of land with waste piles, open pits and tailings – pushing wildlife out of their natural habitat.
The acid mine drainage also dissolves toxic metals contained in the surrounding rock. This, in turn, allows them to pollute rivers, streams and groundwater as well. Earthworks reports that “these toxic metals and metalloids, including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury are harmful to human and wildlife even in trace amounts. Carried in water, the metals can travel long distances. For example, toxic spills at the Summitville Mine in Colorado biologically killed an 18 mile stretch of the Alamosa River, requiring the nation’s most costly mine cleanup” (Water Impacts).
Whether treated or not, acid mine drainage is a persistent problem. Acid will leach from a mine as long as the sulfur-bearing rock is exposed to air and water. After the mines have been depleted of their natural resources, the mining companies are supposed to return the site to its original condition. However, when the mine is no longer making money, the company’s are not going to spend it to reverse the damage they’ve done. In order to protect the water and wildlife, the acid must be continuously treated, which costs taxpayers billions of dollars.
R.E. Rourke, a Jeweler in New Orleans, reminds us of the following:
There are cases like the Burra Burra mine, in East Tennessee, which closed due to the sulfuric acid damage to the Ocoee River. The river is now dead, not a fish is in it, and if you cut or scrape yourself canoeing or kayaking, it will get infected every time because of the incredibly high bacteria count in the water- no one swims in it. It is still harmful to aquatic life and fauna for years after mining ceases and the damage done. Neutralization is rarely complete in the number of years any mining company spends on ” restoring the area to its previous state” after they cease operations in a given area. Why would anyone pour the hundreds of thousands of dollars into an area they are no longer working, and is no longer profitable in a capitalist (or any) economy? There is utter deforestation, dead areas where there is noticeably little, if any, wildlife and rivers that have nothing- not even much algae (very simple organisms)- alive after mining has ceased over 40 years ago.
But that is only a fraction of the story. To actually separate the gold from the ore, cyanide is used along with massive amounts of water. This not only poisons the water, but also diminishes the water supply to the surrounding area because the mines try to contain it. Yet, water knows no boundaries. The water evaporates into the air, and seeps into the ground. The contamination results in thousand-year legacies of acid-mine drainage, destruction of ecosystems, disease, and regional climate change.
A byproduct of the cyanide leeching done by large mining companies is the poison, arsenic. Marianne Hunter of Hunter Studios in California recalls that arsenic was one of the main environmental concerns when a mine was reopened upstream from her home. The plan was for the arsenic-laden water to be captured in a lined settling pond. However, these plans have continuously failed at protecting the environment. “Despite modern technology, government and industry predictions are often wrong, and the long-term environmental and fiscal implications are often severe” (False Promises). From cyanide spills to high mercury levels in water run-off from mines, it seems that toxic chemicals just cannot be confined.
Along with the hazardous contamination of the ground, water and air, mining produces an extraordinary amount of waste: “mining enough gold for a single ring creates 20 tons of mine waste” (The Need). The open-pits are the best way to extract the huge volumes of waste rock and ore necessary to produce the gold. Earthworks, a non-governmental organization aimed at raising awareness of mining destruction, explains that,
These pits often exceed 1 mile in diameter and 1,000 feet in depth. Some, like the Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, are visible from orbit. The pollution impacts of these operations are proportional to their size: according to the EPA, hard-rock mining is the number one toxic polluter in the United States, and has polluted 40% of the stream reaches of the headwaters of western watersheds.
Through the massiveness of these mines, it is easy to understand how they can cause such significant impacts on the environment. Their potential to affect ground and surface waters, aquatic life, vegetation, soils, air, wildlife, and human health are undeniable. Some of the human health effects of mining are Skin Diseases, Cancers, Kidney Disease, and damage to the Nervous system.
The awareness of the environmental and health effects of mining in the U.S. and growing concerns for safety prompted many mining companies to seek development in other countries with less stringent regulations. In Jed Greer’s “The Price of Gold,” he observes that the techniques of extraction, processing and waste disposal that leave an enduring and profoundly destructive legacy have seen an effort to be environmentally conscious in the past twenty years. Changes in government policy are occurring: “The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) require mine owners to comply with terms of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which called for the monitoring and testing of water runoff” (Gold Ores).
One of the major movements currently in the jewelry industry is away from mining new metal and instead refining used metal. Every ounce of recycled gold saves energy and the environmental impact of mining new metal. Retailers are experiencing more and more customers who are concerned about how the stones and precious metals they are purchasing were procured. More importantly, retail customers have demonstrated they are willing to pay a premium for environmentally sensitive products. And even more importantly, with the current economic conditions of high gold prices and low employment rates, people have enthusiastically sold their old jewelry to recompense extra cash. Matt White, the co-founder of greenKarat jewelry describes why he promotes refining recycled gold:
We estimate that there is enough gold already mined on the surface of the planet to feed the jewelry industry for the next 50 years. This is important, because the jewelry industry drives the demand for gold mining. About 85% of the gold that is used each year is used by the jewelry industry. So this is where you’re going to make a difference. And that gold that is already on the surface of the earth and is laying dormant that we’re trying to get out with the recycling program is either going to be sitting in bank vaults as an investment, or it’s in people’s dresser drawers as unwanted or broken jewelry. So that has been the thrust of our program, to try and liberate the dormant gold that is in the form of old jewelry (Wasson).
On average, a U.S. home has over an ounce of unused and unwanted precious metals. That is a whole lot of excavation that we can stop by recycling our precious metals.
Every industrial process has the potential to damage the environment unless aggressively managed. Is there such a thing as a completely closed-loop recycling process? The refiner, Academy Group, says that “when it comes to waste, if it’s airborne, we scrub it; if it’s a liquid, we reprocess it; if it’s a solid, we recycle it back to base metal re-claimers; and if it contains particulates, we send it to a bag house.” The efforts to save the environment from the devastation mining has caused are working. With a desire to protect the environment many metal refiners are marketing “green” precious metals. The metal refining industry has been developing innovative new ways to procure, process and deliver products that have a limited impact on our environment.
But the left over chemicals and destruction from old mines remain and new mines will always be made as long as there is a monetary value on gold. It is an amazing natural resource because of its beauty, ductility, malleability, and conductivity. But a better way of harvesting gold must be invented if the beauty shall remain. The more one learns about the destruction gold mining causes, the faster gold loses its sheen.
Another refiner at the forefront of environmentally-friendly processes is Hoover & Strong. Their products contain a minimum of 88% recycled content. Chet Chaffee, VP Environmental Programs at Scientific Certification Systems says “they source metal from many sources, using reclaimed jewelry as well as silverware, coins, electronics scrap, eyeglass frames, dental scrap and computers.”
Non-governmental organizations (NGO) seem to make more headway than the government subsidized Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Smaller, specialized organizations allow a concentrated effort against mining without political restraints that governmental organizations have. NGO’s such as the International Cyanide Management Code For The Manufacture, Transport and Use of Cyanide In The Production of Gold also known as the Cyanide Code, is a voluntary industry program for the gold mining industry that promotes responsible management of cyanide used in gold mining, enhances the protection of human health, and reduces the potential for environmental impacts. Earthworks started the No Dirty Gold initiative to promote environmental allegiance among jewelry retailers and manufacturers.
The EPA has persistently pursued funding from the government for cleanup to mine sites. The United States has “superfund sites”, which are a federal government run program to clean up the nation’s most complex hazardous waste sites. There are twenty-four superfund sites in the state of Tennessee alone. Due to budget cuts in recent years, many Superfund site cleanups have been delayed or unfunded. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act has demanded the best response. “President Barack Obama called for $1 billion to be put into the Superfund program by reinstating the excise tax on hazardous chemicals and petroleum products beginning in 2011” (Brown).
The result of environmental consciousness has been beneficial to salvaging the earth that has been damaged by open-pit mining, and preventing future damage by changing mining practices. The damage done has yet to fade, but the potential for improvement is vast.
Brown, Lori. “Recovery Act Provides Cleanup Assistance for Superfund Sites.” earth911.com. 24 April 2009. Web. 3 Dec 2009.
“False Promises: Water Quality Predictions Gone Wrong.” Large Mines and Water Pollution. Bristol Bay Alliance: Pure water is more precious than gold. Earthworks/MPC. December 2004. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Gold mining.” Wikipedia.org. 2009. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Gold mining in the United States.” Wikipedia.org. 2009. Web. 27 Nov. 2009.
“Gold Ores: Industry Report.” business.highbeam.com. Highbeam Research. The Gale Group. 2009. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
Greer, Jed. “The price of gold: Environmental costs of the new gold rush. ” The Ecologist 1 May 1993: Sciences Module, ProQuest. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
“Mining Impacts.” Earthworksaction.org. Earthworks. n.d. Web 21 Nov. 2009
“The Need for Reform.” Earthworksaction.org. Earthworks. n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
Wasson, Julia. “Green Weddings Begin with “Responsible Gold.”” Organicgreenandnatural.com. Blue Planet Green Living. 2 May 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2009
“Water Impacts.” Earthworksaction.org. Earthworks. n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.