The Times investigates gold mining, industry reacts

The environmental and social impact of gold was the focus of a 4,900-word investigative story by The New York Times in its Oct. 24 edition.

The “months-long” examination by the Times included tours of gold mines in the American West, Latin America, Africa, and Europe and provided a look inside the industry, which it says has “a troubled environmental legacy and an uncertain future.” It also looked at the increased demand for gold, despite its current high price, particularly in China and Asia where historical and cultural ties have meshed with an increase in prosperity.

The Times report notes that for the ounce of gold it takes to make a ring, “miners dig up and haul away 30 tons of rock and sprinkle it with diluted cyanide, which separates the gold from the rock. 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.”

It also examined the use of cyanide, used to dissolve gold out of the rock, and its long-term environmental impact, including cases where the mishandling of the poisonous material led to widespread contamination of land and water.

In addition, the story notes that many gold mines are increasingly being located in poor countries. The economic benefit and the environmental, cultural, and social damage of these operations are disputed.

The story interviewed government environmental officials in the United States and abroad, mining consultants, mining representatives, jewelers, and human rights activists. Among those interviewed was Tiffany & Co. chairman Michael Kowalski, whose company buys its gold from a mine in Utah that doesn’t use cyanide.

“The biggest challenge we face is the absence of a set of clearly defined, broadly accepted standards for environmentally and socially responsible mining,” Kowalski, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in the story.

While the story did get the mining industry’s perspective, it did not do a good enough job in this regard, says George Milling-Stanley, a spokesman for the World Gold Council, although he said that he has yet to review the article as carefully as he would like.

“One thing I would say is that all the world’s big international mining companies all have well documented economic and social policies and they all devote significant resources to sustainable developments,” Milling-Stanley told JCK while traveling and attending meetings on the West Coast. “I don’t think those issues are really tackled [in the story].”

The Times story also noted that other metal mining faces some of the same issues as gold mining. CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation, is currently urging that the top players in the world silver industry meet to discuss mining issues.

Gianni Cacchione, president of the CIBJO Sterling Silver Commission, called for a summit meeting of all the global players in the mining and manufacture of silver jewelry to discuss the issues that could damage consumer confidence in the purchase of silver jewelry.

“No longer are customers willing to accept the words alone of producers that they are conducting their operations in a fair and decent manner; they want to see companies making genuine and comprehensive efforts to meet their social and corporate responsibilities and prove that they are doing so,” he said in an issue of the CIBJO Special Reports, released Friday.

The Silver Institute in Washington, D.C., and the top silver industry players in the world—including miners, bankers, bullion dealers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, in a worldwide promotion campaign in favor of silverware, need to be involved in the effort, he said.

“To relaunch and carry forward the social image of sterling silver jewelry and especially sterling silver tableware and giftware, it is absolutely essential to invest in a public promotional effort as the only way to increase the quantity of sterling items produced,” he said.