Truth or Dare – The legacy of gold mining.


Jewellers who are rightly concerned about the providence of their raw materials will no doubt be concerned to have read at the beginning of the year another account of an irresponsible Canadian gold mining company. Goldcorp Group has been accused by CAFOD the UK Catholic Aid agency of polluting the local river systems of the Siria Valley.

To quickly recap in September 2008 CAFOD found clear evidence of contamination of water sources at a Goldcorp mine site. CAFOD’s report reveals acidity of the water at two sites reached levels of a pH between 2.5 and 3, which is typically very damaging to stream biology. (Distilled water has a pH of 7, vinegar 3 and lemon juice 2). As well as high levels of toxic metals, including cadmium, copper and iron.

Roger Abraham the vice-president of the Siria Valley Environmental Committee said “the water tastes like acid, like something out of a car a battery”.

Hard rock mining will more often than not involve ‘cyanide leach pools’. This is a process where cyanide is poured over rock to leach out the crushed gold ore. In doing so the leaching will also filter out other metals and potential contaminants like arsenic, mercury and lead. If this process is not managed to a high level of environmental security and safety then the local rivers and groundwater can become toxic through seepage. According to CAFOD, the contamination was caused by acid mine drainage in the Tajo Palo pit.

CAFOD as well as Paul Younger from Newcastle University independently of each other found considerable evidence of  toxins consistent with The Goldcorp subsidiary in the local groundwater supply. Additionally the local community complain that ‘Entremares’ (the wholly owned subsidiary of Goldcorp) have affected the local rivers. Of the 18 riverbeds that fed the valley have now been reduced to 3 as a result of the company using up to 220 gallons of water per minute during their operations.

Goldcorp naturally deny all the accusations that have been made, stating that the Honduran authorities bi-monthly checked the water for contaminants and found no evidence to support the claims being made by the community or the international NGO’s. This is despite in 2007 Entremares were fined $55,000 for ‘polluting and damaging practices’. Currently the mine is now into its closure phase that should include an environmental clean up programme. As with all these cases of bad practice the mine arrives, extracts as much as it can and then leaves, moving onto another location that will impact another community.

Truth or Dare.

There is no doubt in this world of truth or dare, the average consumer or jeweller is justified in being confused by the myriad of claims and counter claims over ethical issues in the mining sector and how they relate to the jewellery product. There is naturally a cost to every activity and this includes gold mining. We can either accept this and work towards the improvement or be one of those who continually  deny any problems exist, as a staff member of the World Gold Council once infamously stated at the end of a talk I gave by declaring, ‘There is no toxic waste in large scale gold mining’. Clearly this expert wasn’t dialed into the realities of life.

Yet as I witnessed on  a recent trip to Peru to film at what will hopefully become one of the new fairtrade/fairmined gold sites, it can be done responsibly, transparently and with concern for the environment, even when using toxic substances like cyanide. This community based mining organisation is a small operation run by its 84 members of whom 7 are women. Processing their gold ore, they to use cyanide in leach pools as Goldcorp do, yet they manage the water issue very well through an enclosed system were all the water is recycled back into the leach pools. In the desert water is as precious as gold. A responsible system should never pollute. Given that this mine will be independently certified as fairtrade and fairmined, a jeweller can invest into this sort of operation with total confidence.

In Conclusion.

Jewellers are the key to solving this kind of malpractice and promoting the positive work that is being developed right across the industry. Our first steps lies in asking the simple question “Where does this material originate from?”. This question is loaded with the power to change two principle practices. Given that physical traceability in the jewellery supply chain is the defining issue, the more we ask it, the more our gold and stone suppliers will have to change their supply chain practices to meet their customers demands. Whether you are a large multiple retailer or a recently graduated designer out of art college, the question creates change. The second practice the question impacts is us. It forces us to start the search for traceable materials, because many operators in the supply chain just don’t care where their goods come from. Jewellery with integrity demands the highest standards and there is no place in our business for those who don’t care. A human life is worth more than gold, this is why we need clean gold, not dirty gold.

The footnote to this article is that despite Goldcorp saying they are innocent,

The Siria Valley community and the public prosecutor in Honduras has begun a process of investigation to establish who by action or omission are responsible for this environmental crime categorised in Honduras’ Law of the environment based on the following sections of the law:

Article 104, subsection b):  “Discharge of dangerous contaminants which
are prohibited or which have not been treated into national waters
including sea/coastal areas, or in continental and underground waters
including water supplies, or infiltrating the soil or subsoil, sewage
water or waste, which could cause the death of one or more people, or
serious damage to human health or the ecosystem in general.”

Article 105: “Action will be taken against the person directly
responsible for the action or omission. The person directly responsible
is understood as the person who orders or participates in the carrying
out of environmental crimes, intellectually or physically.”

Article 106: “The commission of the crimes classified in letters a) and
b) will be punished with the a sentence of imprisonment of between 3 and
10 years, aside from the sentence given for the specific crime which was
committed as a result of the action or omission. In this case, the
disciplinary measures that could also be imposed are definitive closure,
confiscation, cancelation or reversal/revocation, compensation and
restitution”.

Good sources to check out:

Business and Human Rights

CAFOD

The Guardian

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