In Your Right Mine

Once again, the jewelry industry is the subject of nongovernmental-organization scrutiny; this time for alleged environmental destruction as a byproduct of gold mining. While these self-appointed watchdog groups deserve praise for looking after the rights of those who can’t speak up for themselves, let’s not forget their raison d’être is to dictate public policy without actually being elected to legislative office.

As Rob Bates points out in his feature, “Dirty Gold: The Next Conflict Diamonds?” (p. 108), this NGO-driven smear campaign is quite different from the conflict-diamonds issue. There, the industry and the NGOs were at odds regarding how much responsibility was ours for the sufferings of victims who were brutalized as diamonds were traded for arms, but there was no question that there was a serious problem that needed to be rectified immediately. In this latest go-round, the industry and the NGOs can’t even agree on any real issues—not to mention whether they’re unique to gold mining.

Mining is a dirty business, period. Regardless of whether the mineral being extracted is used for adornment, to build a skyscraper, or burned as a fossil fuel, getting it out of the ground makes a big mess. Even when the most exacting precautions are taken to ensure that the local residents—flora, fauna, or human—aren’t poisoned in the process, and that the mine will be returned to something resembling its original state when it’s tapped out, there’s still the issue of visual pollution and economic residue.

Northeastern Pennsylvania is rich in anthracite coal. Anthracite is a hard coal that burns hotter than bituminous soft coal, theoretically requiring less material for the same heat output. But with its high sulfur content, it fell out of favor by the latter 20th century, and the communities that earned their livelihood from it fell into decay.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthracite was typically extracted by pick and shovel. Men descended deep into the earth wearing 50 pounds of equipment on their backs and, in the earliest days, worked only by kerosene lantern or candlelight. In an era before environmental testing equipment, canaries were used to gauge air quality. If the hapless bird died, it meant there were too many toxic gases and there was risk of an explosion. Mine collapses were all too common and many more miners had their lives cut short by black lung disease, a condition—canaries aside—resulting from years of breathing in coal dust. About the only positive thing one could say for this entire process was that, compared with open-pit mining, the surrounding environment was left relatively undisturbed.

In later years, pick-and-shovel coal mining was replaced by open-pit mining. While a somewhat safer situation for the miners, it did nothing for the surrounding area, leaving as it did enormous ugly gaping holes in the earth, many of which still dot the landscape of the area.

Technology has made mining safer, faster, and more economical, but whether it’s gold, diamonds, copper, or any other mineral, a mine is still a mine. And it’s still the responsibility of the mine owner to conduct the mining process in such a way as to leave as little impact on the surrounding environment as possible, both during the life of the mine and after it’s been exhausted.

In this respect, the NGOs are right. The earth is a finite resource, not an infinite one. We are its caretakers, not its owners. In taking what we need (another subjective judgment), we have a moral responsibility not to leave irreparable destruction in our wake. If the NGOs apply this same standard to all mining, as well as to all oil drilling, forestry, smelting, refining, and every other destructive, messy, labor-abusive, or just plain ugly industry, then one cannot argue their point in speaking up for a planet that can’t speak for itself except in the most cataclysmic of ways.

But if they’re applying the standard only to gold mining or to the jewelry industry because it’s perceived as a luxury product, then it’s quite fair of us to fight back.

The only way to do that is by education. I encourage everyone to read Bates’s story in this issue, and to log onto the Web site he references or look on the U.S. government’s Web sites for further information about the effects of mining in general. That way, if a customer or a reporter asks, you can answer the question from a position of strength, not defensiveness.