Behind Gold's Glitter: Torn Lands and Pointed
By JANE PERLEZAND KIRK JOHNSON; SOMINI SENGUPTA CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM
NEW DELHI FOR THIS
ARTICLE. (NYT) 5745 words
Published: October 24, 2005
In the early 1500's, King Ferdinand of Spain laid down the priorities as his conquistadors set out for the
New World. ''Get gold,'' he told
them, ''Humanely if possible, but at all costs, get gold.''
In that long and tortuous history, gold has now arrived at a new moment of opportunity and peril.
The price of gold is higher than it has been in 17 years -- pushing $500 an ounce. But much of the gold
left to be mined is microscopic
and is being wrung from the earth at enormous environmental cost, often in some of the poorest corners
of the world.
And unlike past gold manias, from the time of the pharoahs to the forty-niners, this one has little to do
with girding empires, economies
or currencies. It is almost all about the soaring demand for jewelry in places like China and India, which
consume 80 percent or more of
gold mined today.
The extravagance of the moment is provoking a storm among environmental groups and communities
near the mines, and forcing even
some at Tiffany & Company and the world's largest mining companies to confront uncomfortable
questions about the real costs of mining
''The biggest challenge we face is the absence of a set of clearly defined, broadly accepted standards for
environmentally and socially
responsible mining,'' said Tiffany's chairman, Michael Kowalski. He took out a full-page advertisement
last year urging miners to make
''urgently needed'' reforms.
Consider a ring. For that one ounce of gold, miners dig up and haul away 30 tons of rock and sprinkle it
with diluted cyanide, which culls
the rock from the gold. Before they are through, miners at some of the largest mines move a half million
tons of earth a day, pile it in
mounds that can rival the Great Pyramids, and drizzle the ore with the poisonous solution for years.
The scars of open-pit mining on this scale endure.
Hard-rock mining generates more toxic waste than any other industry in the United States, according to
the Environmental Protection
Agency. The agency estimated last year that the cost of cleaning up metal mines could reach $54 billion.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office chastised the agency and said legal
loopholes, corporate shells and weak
federal oversight had compounded the costs and increased the chances that mining companies could walk
away without paying for
cleanups and pass the bill to taxpayers.
''Mining problems weren't considered a very high priority'' in past decades, Thomas P. Dunne, the
agency's acting assistant administrator
for solid waste and emergency response, said in an interview. ''But they are a concern now.''