How is gold bad for the environment?

Gold mining is one of the most destructive industries in the world. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, harm workers and destroy pristine environments. It contaminates water and land with mercury and cyanide, endangering the health of people and ecosystems. While the list of retailers aligned in their opposition to dirty gold continues to grow, most gold is still quite dirty.

Most of the world's gold is extracted from open pit mines, where huge volumes of land are extracted and processed for trace elements. Earthworks estimates that, to produce enough raw gold to make a single ring, 20 tons of rock and soil are extracted and discarded. Much of this waste contains mercury and cyanide, which are used to extract gold from rock. The resulting erosion clogs streams and rivers and can eventually contaminate marine ecosystems deep below the mine.

Exposing the depths of the earth to air and water also causes chemical reactions that produce sulfuric acid, which can seep into drainage systems. Air quality is also compromised by gold mining, which releases hundreds of tons of elemental mercury into the air every year. Mercury-free methods for gold mining are being developed and promoted in order to reduce the amount of mercury pollution caused by gold mining. In the minds of some, the economic opportunities of a new gold mine offered Northern Ireland an opportunity to escape the horrors of the past, and still offer the local area economic hope for the future.

In some gold mining operations, solutions containing cyanide are used to dissolve gold from the ore extracted from the ground, so that the metal can be extracted and collected. Beth Gerstein, co-founder of Brilliant Earth, based in San Francisco, says that for a long time there have been “inconsistencies between the traditionally perceived value of gold as a romantic symbol and the reality of extracting raw gold from Earth.” As demand for gold remains high, gold mining must be carried out in a way that does not harm the environment. The largest in the world produce many tons of gold a year and the largest of all, the Nevada gold mine in the US. In the US, it produces more than 100 tons each year.

Gold nuggets are popular with collectors, but they are rare; most gold is found in the form of tiny particles buried in gold ore. Gold mining alters the landscape, the water table, geological stability and surrounding ecosystems because large quantities of ore have to be extracted to obtain small quantities of gold. Slate suggests that “the best way to mitigate the impacts of gold mining could be to make a personal promise to keep gold in circulation. The ore collected from gold mines is dissolved using a non-toxic reagent before the gold is recovered from the ore using polymer.

It's the kind of debate that could well become more common if the price of gold remains high and companies seek out small but lucrative gold deposits in places that may have little or no tradition in gold mining. Alan Septoff, communications director for the No Dirty Gold campaign, says that easily accessible gold has become increasingly scarce over time. Some consider it a potential advantage for Northern Ireland, where jobs and investment opportunities stagnated during the 30-year period of conflict known as the Troubles, experts say Curraghinalt could become home to the UK's largest gold mine if it went ahead.