How love of gold moves mountains

 

Through the centuries of our mythology, gold has gathered such a mystical sheen that we forget it is just another commodity. This is a critical oversight, especially for those people fighting gold mines in the West.

We oppose gold mines and proposals for mines through the usual government channels, meager as these might be with the current status of the 1872 General Mining Law. The law says all land uses are equal, but some are more equal than others. Gold mining sits at the top of the heap.

By concentrating on this rigged bureaucratic and legal fight, environmentalists fall into a self-limiting trap. There are free-market forces at play in this issue, and while the market is not the panacea for environmental problems that some contend, in this case it provides a rich vein of opportunity for those who would stop open-pit gold mines from more destruction of Western lands.

The first thread in this logic begins with open-pit. Gold mining underwent a radical shift in economics and technology in the 1980s. Thanks to taxpayer assistance through the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the industry was given the process of heap-leaching with the poisonous reagent cyanide. In addition to putting a particularly virulent toxin into some of the most pristine drainages of the West, this meant that miners were able to recover gold from extraordinarily meager deposits.

Because sophisticated, computer-controlled earth-moving technology allowed them to do so profitably, suddenly gold mines were popping up everywhere. They were big gold mines that moved mountains for molehills of gold.

That was the bad news: The environmental impact of removing a given quantity of gold suddenly jumped by an order of magnitude, a fact that went largely unnoticed as we debated the toxicity of cyanide. At some heap-leach operations, miners move as much as 200 tons of overburden and ore to get one ounce of gold, an amount the size of a grain of rice.

But, heap-leach new-age mining or not, the boom that increased U.S. gold production by a factor of 10 during the 1980s was a demand-driven jump in the price of gold to over $300 an ounce.

The affluence of the '80s meant gold was no longer dug mostly for speculation and hoarding. The total amount of gold mined worldwide in any recent year is virtually a match for the gold used for fabrication of jewelry. The price of gold is directly related to demand for Rolex watches, gold neck chains and wedding rings. While some still is used in speculation, and some for useful purposes like electronics, these amounts are trivial and satisfied by sale of hoarded gold.

By the beginning of this decade, industry insiders were specifically acknowledging the shift, as Gordon R. Parker, chief executive of Newmont Mining, one of the world's biggest mining corporations, did in a speech in 1992.

"We see gold demand improving steadily, as long as increasing world prosperity is translated into growing demand for jewelry," he said. In this sentence, Parker lays out environmentalists' marching orders.

The demand for jewelry is, as economists say, elastic. Jewelry is not like food or even like the pine studs that come from the clearcuts of the West. People can take gold or leave it. Further, the people who take it are a relatively small number of the well-educated elite, the same people who used to take fur coats but learned to leave them once they learned more about ecology.

Imagine, if you will, the impact of a full-page ad in The New York Times placed next to the Rolex ad, informing potential buyers of the true costs of their watch: destroyed habitat, fouled streams, de-watered aquifers and horizon lines rebuilt as tailings piles. What if we told them their single gold ring bit off a chunk of mountain bigger than most houses?

If depressed demand depressed the price of gold below $300 an ounce, many of our environmental worries would go away, as if by magic. It seems worth doing: a unique, golden opportunity to be realized with a national boycott of gold.

Montana writer Richard Manning will be a John S. Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University in the fall.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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