Impact of Gold Mining

Unfortunately modern gold mining is one of the most destructive activities in the world. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, hurt workers, and destroy precious environments. It pollutes water and land with mercury and cyanide, endangering the health of people and ecosystems.

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 one single gold ring, according to Earthworks. 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. It is estimated that 180 million tonnes of such waste annually are dumped into rivers, lakes or oceans. 

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. 

Mercury Pollution

The use of mercury in gold mining is causing a global health and environmental crisis. Mercury, a liquid metal, is used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining to extract gold from rock and sediment. Gold mining is responsible for releasing large amounts of mercury into the air and water. Mercury is extremely harmful to human health and is poisoning the environment. It is estimated that gold miners release about 1000 tons of mercury into the environment each year. 

Acid Mine Drainage

Exposing the deep earth to air and water also causes chemical reactions that produce sulfuric acid, which can leak into drainage systems. This persistent problem is called acid mine drainage. Iron sulfides in the rock can react with oxygen to form sulfuric acid. Acidic water draining from mine sites can be 20 to 300 times more concentrated than acid rain, and it is toxic to living organisms. Acidic waters flowing from abandoned mines can raise acidity levels and destroy aquatic life for generations. Roman mining sites in England are still causing acid mine drainage more than 2000 years later.

Right to Land 

Rural communities and indigenous peoples often lack legal title to their lands, even though they may have occupied the same lands for many generations. In many countries the law does not recognize indigenous peoples as owners of their lands. Consequently, they are often vulnerable to eviction when a mining lease is granted. This may be imposed without prior consultation, meaningful compensation, or the offer of equivalent lands elsewhere. Government and business interests often do not respect the spiritual and cultural connection indigenous people have to their lands and environment.