All That Glitters

Gold Mining Leaves a Toxic Trail

The discovery of gold in the spiritually important Little Rocky Mountains in northern Montana is a curse that the Native-American community of Fort Belknap has lived with for more than 100 years. During the 19th century, the mountains were removed from the tribe’s reservation so prospectors could dig for gold. The community is still suffering, this time from the side effects of industrial-scale mining.

The environmental legacy of gold mining lingers even after the mines—like this one in Nevada—are closed.© Tom Myers, Great Basin Mine Watch

While most people consider gold to be a luxury gift or a symbol of love, the yellow metal has lost its radiance in Fort Belknap as the Native Americans deal with cases of thyriod problems, lead poisoning, brain atrophy in babies, and a spate of stillbirths.

The Native Americans blame their health problems on the gold mine, which is located right next to their reservation. More than $1 billion in gold has been taken from the Zortman-Landusky mine in the Little Rockies over the last century—not that the tribes have seen much of it.

In 1979, Zortman-Landusky became one of the first gold mines in the world to start using "heap leaching" technology, which allowed mining companies to increase production. The process involves scooping out large chunks of mountainside and then pouring cyanide over it to dissolve the microscopic particles of gold imbedded in the rock.

This incredibly wasteful process produces an average of three million tons of debris for every ton of gold, but it is very cheap. There are, inevitably, environmental consequences as a result of this process, including cyanide spills and acid-water runoff, which have affected the health of nearby communities.

"Indians know white people are crazy for gold," says Gus Helgeson, one of the original Fort Belknap anti-mine campaigners. "And we are paying for that."

The Zortman-Landusky mine is now closed, following the 1998 bankruptcy of its owner Pegasus Gold. The state of Montana has been left to pick up a large chunk of the clean-up costs, but the pollution problems could last forever.

Montana is not alone in suffering long-term environmental damage as a result of gold mining. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Toxics Release Inventory, the mining industry (mainly gold) was responsible for dumping 1.3 billion pounds of chemicals into the environment in Nevada during 1998. The Mineral Policy Center estimates that more than 12,000 miles of American waterways have been polluted.

The list of spills and accidents at U.S. gold mines is an environmental horror story: 264,000 gallons of cyanide waste spilled into rivers at Gold Quarry, Nevada in 1997; 11,000 fish died in Lynches River, South Carolina after a spill from the Brewer gold mine in 1992; seven tons of cyanide tailings spilled into Whitewood Creek, South Dakota in 1998. The list goes on.

As a further injustice, taxpayers receive virtually no benefit from the gold industry because of a law written in 1872. The law, created to encourage settlers in the West, allows mining companies to buy federal land for 1872 prices, often no more than $5 per acre. The miners pay no royalties on the $1 billion in minerals and metals they dig up each year. The 2004 federal budget would grant mining concerns $170 million in tax deductions over the next five years.

In the last hours of the Clinton presidency, amendments were made to "1872," but these have subsequently been reversed by the Bush administration. A bipartisan bill has, however, been introduced into Congress that would radically overhaul the old mining law.

"It’s a crazy law," says Whitney Painter, spokesperson for the Mineral Policy Center, which lobbies to abolish the mining act. "We need meaningful reform in order to protect taxpayers as well as water, wildlife and other natural resources."

While it is likely that the industry will be saved from any major alteration to "1872" by Senators from Western states, mining companies remain under siege from environmental campaigners across North America. There have been some notable green victories: Montana has banned the use of cyanide heap leaching (effectively killing the industry there), California has introduced prohibitively strict water-use rules, and activists in Washington recently blocked the proposed Crown Jewel mine.

Even in Nevada, which produces about 10 percent of the world’s gold, groups such as Great Basin Minewatch are issuing lawsuits and challenging the state to improve its pollution controls. All this environmental activity has forced the big North American gold miners like Newmont, Barrick and Placer Dome to reconsider their future in this part of the world. As a result, they are shifting exploration to the developing countries. U.S. gold production dropped 11 percent last year.

"We are seeing the gold mining industry dying here but they are trying to hang on and more and more corporations are going to Asia, South America and Africa," says Diana Ruiz, of Oakland-based Project Underground. The developing world is rapidly writing its own list of horror spills and accidents: In 1995, 845 million gallons of cyanide waste was released into the Essequibo River in Guyana, killing all aquatic life; in January 2000, 150 miles of the Danube River was polluted after a cyanide spill in Romania; and in Kyrgyzstan, in 1998, 3,884 pounds of highly toxic sodium cyanide was spilled. The gold companies are not having it all their own way, however, as communities in these developing countries are fighting back. They hope to avoid the suffering and damage that has plagued communities like Fort Belknap.