The Enviornmental Cost of Gold Mining

Dirty gold mining has ravaged landscapes, contaminated water supplies, and contributed to the destruction of vital ecosystems. Cyanide, mercury, and other toxic substances are regularly released into the environment due to dirty gold mining.

Modern industrial gold mining destroys landscapes and creates huge amounts of toxic waste. Due to the use of dirty practices such as open pit mining and cyanide heap leaching, mining companies generate about 20 tons of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring. The waste, usually a gray liquid sludge, is laden with deadly cyanide and toxic heavy metals.

Many gold mines dump their toxic waste directly into natural water bodies. The Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea dumps over 5 million tons of toxic waste into the Pacific Ocean each year, destroying corals and other ocean life. Companies mining for gold and other metals in total dump at least 180 million tons of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans each year—more than 1.5 times the waste that U.S. cities send to landfills on a yearly basis.

To limit the environmental damage, mines often construct dams and place the toxic waste inside. But these dams do not necessarily prevent contamination of the surrounding environment. Toxic waste can easily seep into soil and groundwater, or be released in catastrophic spills. At the world’s estimated 3,500 dams built to hold mine waste, one or two major spills occur every year.

Toxic waste spills have had devastating consequences in Romania, China, Ghana, Russia, Peru, South Africa, and other countries. In 2014, a dam collapsed at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in British Columbia, sending about 25 million cubic meters of cyanide-laden waste into nearby rivers and lakes—enough to fill about 9,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The spill poisoned water supplies, killed fish, and harmed local tourism.