What impact does mining for diamonds and other gems have on the environment?

What impact does mining for diamonds and other gems have on the environment?

—Tiffany Schultz, Dayton, OH

Gem mining around the world can indeed be very destructive to the surrounding environment, leading to many problems such as soil erosion and sedimentation, water pollution and depletion, poisoning of wildlife and vegetation, flooding—even landslides. The contents of “mine tailings”—rock and other waste materials separated and left behind in the mining process—can wreak havoc on nearby agricultural lands, and pose myriad human health problems.

In the United States, mining companies are legally obligated to conduct environmental impact studies of proposed sites and then, if approved by regulators, follow the letter of the law regarding the protection of wildlife, air and water, and the proper disposal of hazardous waste. Furthermore, many U.S. states have “reclamation” laws on the books calling for the safeguarding of surface and groundwater around mining operations, and cleanup and re-vegetation after the fact to restore mining areas to their original condition.

But mines outside U.S. borders are not subject to the same rules as they are here in the U.S., even if run by American companies. Large-scale demand means large-scale mining operations, and that often means massive amounts of sedimentation and tailings falling into water systems around the world. The mercury and cyanide used to separate gold and copper from rock also make their way into our air and water.

With no country-of-origin labeling laws or system in the jewelry and gem trade, consumers can never be sure if their bracelets, rings and necklaces come from responsible sources or from companies whose mining operations are polluting, destroying wildlife habitat, exploiting poor or indigenous people (and their resources)—or funding a civil war, as does the diamond trade in Angola and Sierra Leone.

According to Friends of the Earth, mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold in 1996 was dumping 110,000 tons of mine tailings into the local river system on a daily basis. Plans to expand Freeport’s mining activities in Indonesia, according to the company’s own environmental auditors, could “increase its dumping of untreated tailings to 285,000 tons daily,” presenting serious health challenges for local residents who have little in the way of power or resources to halt such activity.

Obtaining jewels, however, does not have to be a destructive proposition. People have been finding valuable gems and minerals for centuries by panning for them themselves in rivers and streams. There are even “theme parks” scattered across U.S., such as Gold City, in Franklin, North Carolina, that let you “mine your own gemstones.” And companies such as Junk to Jewels and Snooty Jewelry sell jewelry made from recycled materials, handmade beads and glass. Another company, Global Marketplace, sells a wide range of jewelry made by artists in developing countries such as Nepal, Mexico and Chile, thus helping producers in these nations increase their standard of living above the poverty line.

CONTACTS: Friends of the Earth, (877) 843-8687, www.foe.org ; Gold City, (800) 713-7767, www.goldcityamusement.com ; Junk to Jewels, www.junktojewels.net; Snooty Jewelry, www.snootyjewelry.com ; Global Marketplace, www.globalmarketplace.org.