Dirty Gold: What is the Environmental Impact of Gold Mines?

environmental impact gold mining

Gold mines have a very real environmental impact of the land around them -- and most of it's not good.

“Dirty” gold is a term used to describe gold that is mined in an unsustainable, environmentally irresponsible way. Unfortunately, gold is one of the “dirtiest” metals to mine, requiring large amounts of toxic chemicals and generating tons of waste.

Here are some of the effects of dirty gold mining practices.

How Gold Mines Impact Local Ecosystems

Gold is usually mined in enormous, open pits. Some of these gigantic craters can even be seen from outer space. Of course, much habitat destruction takes place when one of these mines is created. Local ecosystems are disrupted, affecting the connection between plants, animals, soil, water, and all those elements of a healthy ecosystem.

Types of Pollution Cause by a Gold Mine

To extract gold from the surrounding rocks, heat and chemicals are used. Some of these are dangerous pollutants. For example, the deadly poison cyanide is regularly used to leach gold from ore. Air, soil, and water are all affected. The waste products from gold mining are called “tailings.”

  • How Gold Mines Affect the Air—Dust from open mines fills the air and can cause illness when it’s breathed by miners or local people. If tailings are left out in the open air, they can generate dust full of chemicals like cadmium and arsenic. And the extraction of gold involves heating it to extreme temperatures (smelting), which releases pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur dioxide into the air.
  • Environmental Impact of Mining on Water Sources—Gold mine operators have been known to dump tailings into local water supplies. There are reports of streams and rivers, full of cyanide from gold mines, losing 80 percent or more of their aquatic life. Tailings that are stored in reservoirs can leak out. Sometimes the reservoirs burst, flooding surrounding areas with polluted water. Mercury and other heavy metals persist in water supplies near gold mines.
  • Environmental Soil Damage from Gold Mines—Waste products from the mining and processing of gold accumulate and leach into the soil.

The Results of Mining on Communities

Entire communities of indigenous people are often displaced by gold mining. Crime increases in mine towns. The people’s traditional way of life is obliterated. The pollution of water and soil can destroy local agriculture, which many communities depend on for survival.

Much of the wealth generated by the gold mine benefits the usually foreign company that owns the mine. Government officials in the country where the gold is being mined also benefit. But workers and individuals do not reap the same rewards. The local community, in other words, is not aided by the economic “boom” generated by a gold mine.

Gold is non-renewable. This means that, eventually, the mine will close, leave a crater and a displaced people.

Harmful Health Affects on Gold Mine Workers

The health of the people is also threatened. Inhalation of the dust induces asthma, and can lead to lead and other heavy metal poisoning.

Workers in gold mines are subject to lung diseases due to dust inhalation. Human rights abuses have been reported at many mines. Women often bear the brunt of this, suffering disproportionately as their traditional agricultural jobs are obliterated.

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