Environment & Health

Dirty Gold

For some, gold conjures images of a wedding band. For others, like this community in Ghana, it means cyanide contamination in a vital local river.
Newmont's tailings dam, where gold mining waste is stored. | Credit: ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH

Buying a piece of jewelry for someone is often an emotional celebration. But some people are concerned about the damage caused by mining that gold. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch takes us from the jewelry store to the gold mine:

  • Our partner

“It is a white gold band, with a star sapphire in the middle.”

In New York City, Sarah Lenigan is showing off her engagement ring. She got married this summer in California. Nowadays some people like her are starting to wonder where the stuff they buy comes from, including their wedding rings.

“You know the idea of the blood diamond, and not just the movie but, you do think about these things when you think about real jewelry. And this is the first time we’ve bought real jewelry, so it was a whole new ball game, I guess.”

It’s hard to say exactly where the gold in Sarah’s ring came from. Gold isn’t like other commodities – it’s almost impossible to track. But more and more, gold like Sarah’s is coming out of Ghana, in West Africa.

(driving sounds)

We’re driving over a dam on the Subri river in Ghana. The country used to be called the Gold Coast and today it’s the second largest producer of gold in Africa. Most of the gold comes out of a number of large surface mines. They’re all owned by companies from abroad.

At this dam, the American gold mining company, Newmont, stores water and waste from its gold mine.

Adusah Yakubu is with me. He’s a member of a local advocacy group. One side of the dam is green forest and clear water. But the other side looks like the surface of the moon.

“It looks like there’s cement in the river. It’s very hard, and it’s very gray. (What is that?) It’s a tailings dam.”

A tailings dam is where mining companies put waste from processing gold. After the precious metal is extracted, you get a mixture of sand and water. It also contains cyanide. Now, the chemical is poisonous, but it’s used all the time in gold mining. And miners work to control it.

But there are also accidents. Some of that waste overflowed this fall at Newmont’s mine, and killed fish downstream. The company says it was a minor event.

For the people who live around Newmont’s mine, the operations have really disrupted their lives. This river used to be the main source of drinking water and food for nearby villages. Kwame Kumah and his wife, Mary Yeboa live by the dam. They say they used to rely on the river for a lot of things.

“There are so many different things we got from the river. You could even get food from it, like fish, crab. But nowadays we can’t get anything from it.”

Now they can’t go near the water because of security guards. Newmont gave the community a well to make up for it. But the villagers say the dam has brought more mosquitoes, and with the mosquitos, disease. Although the company sold them discounted mosquito nets, Mary Yeboa says she gets sick much more than before.

“Right now, my body hurts all over. As I’m talking to you I have a headache, it really hurts. I don’t feel well at all.”

The gold mining company, Newmont declined to comment for this story.

The company sells its gold on the world market. Some people might buy it as investments, others for manufacturing. Or, it could end up as jewelry, like Sarah Lenigan’s engagement ring. That’s actually where most new gold goes, to jewelry.

Soon jewelry consumers, who care about their impact might be able to get some guidance. Certification systems such as the Responsible Jewelry Council are looking at gold, from the mine to the store.

Council CEO, Michael Rae says they are trying to clean up the jewelry business.

“It looks at environmental performance, social performance, labor standards, occupational health and safety, child labor issues and also in business ethics.”

The system won’t guarantee that gold or diamonds are from a specific mine, but it will reveal whether retailers and miners are making an effort to play fair.

Many jewelry and mining companies have signed on to the code. Newmont, the owner of the mine in Ghana we visited, is not a current member.

For The Environment Report, I’m Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

Research assistance provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the reporter

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch is a Seattle-based freelance multimedia journalist, specializing in radio.

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