All That Glitters ... Gold Mining Leaves a Toxic Trail

By Robertson, David | E Magazine, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

All That Glitters ... Gold Mining Leaves a Toxic Trail


Robertson, David, E Magazine


The discovery of gold in the spiritually important Little Rocky Mountains in northern Montana is a curse that the Native-American community, of Fort Belknap has lived with for more than 100 years. During the 19th century, the mountains were removed from the tribe's reservation so prospectors could dig for gold. The community is still suffering, this time from the side effects of industrial-scale mining.

While most people consider gold to be a luxury gift or a symbol of love, the yellow metal has lost its radiance in Fort Belknap as the Native Americans deal with cases of thyriod problems, lead poisoning, brain atrophy in babies, and a spate of stillbirths.

The Native Americans blame their health problems on the gold mine, which is located right next to their reservation. More than $1 billion in gold has been taken from the Zortman-Landusky mine in the Little Rockies over the last century--not that the tribes have seen much of it.

In 1979, Zortman-Landusky became one of the first gold mines in the world to start using "heap leaching" technology, which allowed mining companies to increase production. The process involves scooping out large chunks of mountainside and then pouring cyanide over it to dissolve the microscopic particles of gold imbedded in the rock.

This incredibly wasteful process produces an average of three million tons of debris for every ton of gold, but it is very cheap. There are, inevitably, environmental consequences as a result of this process, including cyanide spills and acid-water runoff, which have affected the health of nearby communities.

"Indians know white people are crazy for gold," says Gus Helgeson, one of the original Fort Belknap anti-mine campaigners. "And we are paying for that."

The Zortman-Landusky mine is now closed, following the 1998 bankruptcy of its owner Pegasus Gold. The state of Montana has been left to pick up a large chunk of the clean-up costs, but the pollution problems could last forever.

Montana is not alone in suffering long-term environmental damage as a result of gold mining. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Toxics Release Inventory, the mining industry (mainly gold) was responsible for dumping 1.3 billion pounds of chemicals into the environment in Nevada during 1998. The Mineral Policy Center estimates that more than 12,000 miles of American waterways have been polluted.

The list of spills and accidents at U.S. gold mines is an environmental horror story: 264,000 gallons of cyanide waste spilled into rivers at Gold Quarry, Nevada in 1997; 11,000 fish died in Lynches River, South Carolina after a spill from the Brewer gold mine in 1992; seven tons of cyanide tailings spilled into Whitewood Creek, South Dakota in 1998. The list goes on.

As a further injustice, taxpayers receive virtually no benefit from the gold industry because of a law written in 1872. …

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