Is Diamond Mining Environmentally Damaging?

One of the things that I’m hearing more and more of lately – and I think this is mostly being spread by certain sellers of lab-grown diamonds (see here and here) – is that there are environmental problems in diamond mining. In recent months, this issue has popped up on CNet, the Wall Street Journal and magazines like this one.

So is this a problem? Apparently, with the regulated sector, at least, things aren’t too bad.  Here is what Ian Smillie, of NGO Partnership Africa Canada, had to say: 

The newer Kimberlite mines have huge environmental assessments and protection in place. I am thinking of the ones in the Canadian Arctic, where the eco systems are fragile. Some environmentalists would like more regulation, but the situation is very closely watched. Someone called the mining there “an environmental project with some diamond mining on the side”.

I suppose the older mines around the world were not so careful, but you’d have to go into detail to know.

Alluvial mining is different – you strip off the topsoil to get at the diamonds, and in most of the African and South American countries, there is little remediation. There are laws, but they are mostly not enforced (although at the Williamson mine in Tanzania I saw a lot of remediation going on earlier this year).

The problem in many tropical areas, however, is that unless you remove and replace the topsoil very carefully, you may not really be accomplishing much. A lot of tropical topsoil is very thin, and if you mix it up with sand and laterite, it won’t be good for much afterwards.

There are other problems. In some places they dam and/or divert rivers to get at the diamonds, messing up drinking water and fish habitats. Or huge ponds are left behind, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and malaria.

Of course, the alluvial sector has a million other problems, too (PDF). The Diamond Development Initiative, which Smillie is spearheading, is a very worthy project that will hopefully address the problems of that sector. Smillie notes the DDI is developing “Standards and Guidelines” for alluvial mining, which will include environmental concerns.

I also spoke to Stephen D’Esposito, president and executive director of Earthworks and a founder of No Dirty Gold, and he agreed with what Smillie said, adding: “Diamonds have an impact. The key is to look at environmental standards. There is always going to be an impact but you can mitigate that. Any miner needs to follow a set of protocols.”

D’Esposito noted that gold mining, which uses cyanide, has “a far bigger environmental footprint” than diamond mining. Which makes you wonder what they are setting those environmentally-friendly synthetic diamonds in.

Finally, here is what the World Diamond Council has to say (PDF), and a quick tutorial from

JCK News Director