Today many global industries suffer from being painted with the broad brush of malignment. But when it comes to mining, there’s so much that benefits society. We must be appreciative and aware of how our lives are made better through precious metal extraction.
Looking at Mining
By looking at all sides of a situation, we gain a balanced perspective. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine a prolific publisher of scientific research addressed this in a report, “Evolutionary and Revolutionary Techniques for Mining.”
“Mining is first and foremost a source of mineral commodities that all countries find essential for maintaining and improving their standards of living. Mined materials are needed to construct roads and hospitals, to build automobiles and houses, to make computers and satellites, to generate electricity, and to provide the many other goods and services that consumers enjoy.”
The diamond and gemstone trade has depended on mining for centuries to access gems and precious metals used in jewelry manufacture. With gemstone mining, the concerns focus on the disruption to the earth, the impact on water quality plus its effects on wildlife and bio-diversity.
Getting the Gold
But with precious metal mining – specifically with gold extraction – few of us are cognizant of its environmental impact. While consumers are generally in the dark as to where their gold comes from, we in the trade don’t always have it on our radar, either. Granted, we’re making critical inroads into recycling gold from scrap jewelry and other cast-offs, and that’s to be lauded.
Environmental watchdog Earthworks.org sounded the alarm about critical levels of toxic waste from metal mining more than a decade ago. Calling metal mining the No. 1 toxic polluter in the US in 2010, Earthworks claimed metal mining was responsible for 1.5 billion lbs. of chemical waste annually. According to the researchers, arsenic, mercury, and lead were the dominant toxic pollutants. Many jewelry tradespeople today are keen advocates of the ‘do no harm’ maxim and want to be a part of the solution to this quandary.
Small Scale Miners
This puts the focus on to unregulated artisanal mining. Small scale and artisanal miners operate as individual ‘freelance’ miners who sometimes pay landowners to access an area. Using rudimentary tools, often not more than shovels and pickaxes, they eke out a living just like earlier artisanal miners did for centuries. Increased gold demand fueled in part by a soaring Chinese middle class, has made artisanal gold mining steadily soar.
As artisanal gold mining ramps up globally, Reuters published an insightful report “What is artisanal gold and why is it booming?” In it, they estimated that by 2020, there were some 15-20 million artisanal miners laboring independently in gold producing regions.
How They Mine
These freelance miners use mercury in the extraction of gold. In the process, mercury is mixed with the gold ore, forming a mercury-gold amalgam. This is then heated which vaporizes the mercury, leaving the miners with gold nuggets.
But mercury used in this process leaks toxins into the ground and water sources, creating a potentially deadly outcome – endangering and contaminating entire communities. This can turn entire eco-systems upside down and cause untold harm to human life and the environment.
Mercury Free Mining (MFM) is committed to turning this age old travesty around by helping to create a healthier outcome for artisanal and small scale miners. On their site, mercuryfreemining.org, they explain, “The miners are not to blame. Miners often lack workable alternatives to using this potent neurotoxin in order to concentrate gold.”
By partnering with members of the jewelry industry, MFM says they are discovering and implementing efficient alternatives that can keep over 15 million small scale miners from poisoning themselves.
Finding Safe Alternatives
Since alternative gold recovery methods will rely heavily on imaginative forerunners, it’s definitely an uphill battle, but a worthy struggle. Toby Pomeroy, MFM Executive Director, “pioneered EcoGold – socially and environmentally responsible gold from Hoover and Strong Refiners. Toby is the only US member serving on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Responsible Mining.” explains his MFM bio.
But what do-able methods can be adopted by artisanal gold miners to separate the gold from its host ore without using mercury? While much research still needs to be conducted to establish long term solutions, early indicators are promising, MFM says. “We have three [researchers] in the US, one in Colombia, one in Peru and one in Australia, [each working on different solutions,] and we’re quite excited about them.” Australian professor Dr. Justin Chalker, at Flinders University, Adelaide, won the prime minister’s Prize for New Innovators award in 2020 for his process of gold recovery using simple waste sulfur and lemon oil.
Gaining Allies in the Jewelry Trade
Jewelry trade members need not look outside the US to find like-minded groups intent on responsibly sourced gold.
Hoover & Strong, a leading US refiner and manufacturer of precious metals exhibits a long-standing commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Together with the Fair Trade Jewellery Company (FTJCo), the first Fairtrade certified jeweler in North America and the first SCS-007 (sustainably rated diamonds) accredited retailer in Canada, “they are leveraging their experiences as the first two companies in North American to market Fairtrade, Fairmined and responsibly sourced gold from Congo,” according to MFM. In this new supply chain, Hoover & Strong takes the lead in providing refining services.
Turning around the old way of gold extraction using mercury is a formidable battle – but it can be won, says MFM’s Pomeroy. “If NASA can fly a robot spaceship 250 million kilometers to asteroids and bring some rocks back, we can certainly solve this matter of mercury. It’s just a matter of will.”