Does Diamond Mining Hurt the Environment?

While certain sellers of lab-grown diamonds now claim that diamond mining is ecologically damaging, activists say that isn’t true of all types of mining., which sells synthetic stones, declares on its Web site that diamond mining creates “environmental devastation” and suggests it be “phased out.”

But Ian Smillie, of the nongovernmental organization Partnership Africa Canada, says not all types of mining create environmental hazards. “The newer kimberlite mines have huge environmental assessments and protection in place,” he says. “I am thinking of the ones in the Canadian Arctic, where the ecosystems 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.’”

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

The real problem, he says, is with the largely unregulated alluvial sector. “[There,] you strip off the topsoil to get at the diamonds, and in most of the African and South American countries, there is little remediation,” he says. “There are laws, but they are mostly not enforced—although at the [De Beers–owned] Williamson Mine in Tanzania I saw a lot of remediation going on earlier this year.”

He continues, “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.”

Smillie is spearheading the Diamond Development Initiative, which is working out standards and practices for the alluvial sector, including environmental concerns.

Stephen D’Esposito, president and executive director of Earthworks and a founder of No Dirty Gold, agrees with Smillie’s assessment and adds: “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 notes that gold mining, which uses cyanide, has “a far bigger environmental footprint” than diamond mining.

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