Seventy percent of the world’s gold production is used to produce jewelry. But the price of vanity is expensive: destruction of the environment and wars rage, until today, along the road of gold. Gold prices have been rebounding to record highs in recent weeks, amid investor concerns about the debt crisis in euro countries and the US Spot gold hit a record high of 1,678, $ 31 an ounce this Thursday. But, where did this gold that is listed on the stock market come from? Or the one that several couples have just exchanged, in the form of wedding engagement rings, anywhere in the world? Potassium cyanide “In industrial mining, a lot of potassium cyanide is used as a chemical element to remove gold from the stone”, explains Marie Müller, researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC).
So the production of just one of the many wedding rings that roam the world, is accompanied by about 20 tons of toxic waste that pollutes the water table, is dumped into the seas, or make entire regions uninhabitable. What remains, when the business stops being profitable, is a polluted lunar landscape, in which neither the soil nor the waters can be used. A Romanian employee of the Aurul SA gold smelter receives instructions over the radio on a site near the plant where work is being carried out to reinforce a dam to prevent further toxic chemicals from spilling into a nearby river in Baia Mare, about 400 miles northwest of Bucharest Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2000. Australia-based Esmeralda Exploration Ltd., co-owner of the Baia Mare gold mine, has denied responsibility for the spill, saying the extent of the poisoning had been exaggerated. The Jan. 30 spillhas caused environmental damage in the Tisza River in Hungary and further downstream in the Danube River in Yugoslavia.
(AP Photo / Eileen Kovchok) Aurul gold mine, in Baia Mare. 100,000 tonnes of potassium cyanide and heavy metal residues reached the Black Sea in 2000. 182,000 tons of potassium cyanide are used every year around the world to obtain the precious metal. The amount equivalent to a grain of rice is enough to kill one person. “Operators must store and dispose of the material safely, but it is generally done in open containers or sinks, where the residual broth is supposed to dry,” says Müller. Over and over again accidents, small or large, like the one in 2000 happen in the Romanian town of Baia Mare. There, after the dam around a pool broke, some 100,000 tons of cyanide and heavy metal residues flowed for three weeks, through the Tisza and Danube rivers, to the Black Sea. Massive animal poisonings affected not only Romania, but also Hungary and Serbia.
Well poisoning Many of the wells around Baia Mare remain contaminated to this day, to the misfortune of animals and residents. The operator of the gold mine, the Romanian-Australian company Aurul, continued to exploit it just four months later under another name, as Aurul had declared bankruptcy to avoid having to respond for the damages. The “new” Transgold took over the business, but not the environmental catastrophe. And history repeats itself all over the world, it doesn’t matter if it is in Asia, Africa, Latin America or Europe; in Peru, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Congo or Ghana: a couple of transnational companies dominate the market, monopolize concessionaires in countries with lax environmental regulations, and disappear when the mine is no longer profitable. It does not matter that accidents have not occurred, behind are mountains and lakes of stagnant waste, seepage to the soil and nearby waters. Gold is very cheap ” Friedhelm Korte, a chemist at the Weihenstephan Technical University, Munich, presents an environmental balance of gold production: 250,000 tonnes of ore are ground annually in an average mine and piled up on a 1.5 hectare area, where they spray 125 tons of cyanide solution, in addition to 365 cubic meters of industrial water. With the average obtaining of three grams of gold per ton of ore, the annual profit of this “average mine” amounts to 750 kilograms of gold.
In many mines, however, barely a gram of gold is obtained, while producing a ton of waste and the same environmental damage as the most productive ones. Additionally, the industry annually produces tens of thousands of tons of sludge containing highly toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, copper, mercury, and arsenic. “In this washing process, hundreds of substances are extracted and put together that react with each other in an unexplored way,” warns Korte. “If only you had