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“There's gold in them thar hills,” goes the old saying. There’s also human blood and nerve damage in that gold. And there's dying animals and destroyed rivers.
The greatest gold rush in all of human history is on. It's not a pretty, a romantic or a benign business. Indeed, it's a catastrophe for the environment and for human and animal health.
The high price of gold – it has tripled since 2000 – is such that every gold-bearing plot of land and river is being ravaged in more than 70 countries. As many as 50 million of the world’s poorest people now depend on this kind of plunder for a living.
It's the mining equivalent of subsistence farming, but it's lethal in the cruelest ways. Mercury is used to identify the gold (2 grams of mercury for 1 gram of gold) to which it adheres. With each use, some of the mercury is washed away and vapor escapes into the air. In another variant of this practice, cyanide is used to leach gold out of ore in vats or ponds. Either way, two deadly substances are released without control into the environment.
The problem isn't with the deep mines of Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States – the hard-rock mines. It's with two other categories of mining that use mercury or cyanide: alluvial and artisan.
Alluvial is working a river with pans and sluice tables, which are primitive devices that trap gold granules in a blanket or grease. Artisan – a term used by the United Nations and environmental groups — uses bigger machines and expensive “shaker tables,” which process earth by the ton rather than the bucket. These can be found in surface gold deposits in rivers and farther away. This is a mechanized version of finding gold that is not deep in the ground.
While artisan mining may conjure images of dedicated craftsmen coaxing gold out of rock with love and skill, don’t be deceived. The activity is savage and brutal; the plundered rock and soil is left to wash away, causing death and destruction over many years.
The Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, and its cohorts at the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank, consider cyanide to be the lesser of the two threats. Maybe. But I've seen great piles of mining spoil which the cyanide has rendered lifeless. Nothing lives in it or grows on it.
Certainly, mercury is the largest of the real-and-present danger of subsistence mining. In Indonesia, men stand in rivers with their hands in buckets of water, muck and mercury, according to one Associated Press report. The BBC also has reported promiscuous use of mercury in Indonesia and Peru.
From China to Romania, in much of Latin America and throughout Africa, there is extensive mining on the surface — and that means mercury use. Miners in these countries are well aware of the dangers — miners often are. But the economics of their lives dictate that they mine until it kills them, or the food chain collapses and their families are poisoned, or the operation has to move to a pristine area to be repeated.
The economic life that sustains also destroys.
The United States and the European Union have restricted the export of mercury. But that's only increased the price, while there appears to be plenty in international trade – enough for the nomadic miners of those 70 or so countries.
I have to declare a personal interest in alluvial gold mining at its simplest: panning and sluicing. My father, whenever his many little business endeavors failed, headed for the beautiful Angwa River in Zimbabwe, both before and after World War II, to look for gold. He mined it with picks, shovels, pans and sluices. The activity was so minor it left no lasting mark. In those days gold fetched $35 an ounce, hardly enough to sustain him and his family, but better than nothing. Now it's about $1,600 an ounce.
My father loved that river. He often spoke about its beauty and tranquility. I've been reviewing photographs of it today: a ravaged moonscape of pits and waste piles. Crime is unchecked, murder is common.
Shakespeare said it: “All that glisters is not gold.” Indeed not. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Brace for a storm of platitudes, recycled myths, and just old-fashioned
It will all start with President Obama when he addresses a joint session
of Congress on Thursday about the jobs deficit. Whatever he says will be
followed by scorn and abuse from the Republicans. All the hoary old claims
about the absence of leadership, wasteful spending, punitive regulation
and the need to cut taxes will be regurgitated.
The president will have a TelePrompTer full of enchantment tales. He also
will talk of cutting some taxes; maybe because he thinks this will endear
him to the undecided voters, or mollify some Republicans, or because he
consistently tries to make his way in a viciously partisan political world
by endeavoring to sound like the voice of detached reason. It will make no
friends and infuriate the Democratic core. It will be another betrayal to
All of the tax ideas, presidential and Republican, will be wrapped in cant
about small business. Oh, do politicians love small business. Apple pie is
good, mom is noble but small business, and small business alone, can cause
the entire Congress of the United States to genuflect.
They love the travel agent with six employees with the same passion that
they adore General Electric. The machine tool repair and maintenance
contractor with 40 employees – he is the very embodiment of American
exceptionalism. The woman with a wholesale jewelry business that she
operates with her husband and grown daughter — they are the stuff of
If Congress knew anything about the small business world, it would
stop forcing the wrong medicine on the patient. Incorrect therapies won’t
help, no matter how vigorous the applications.
To the political establishment, small business is suffering because of
taxation and regulation. Fiddle with these twin bugaboos, the political
narrative goes, and small business will bloom like the bluebells in
Have any of these people ever talked to small business operators? Small
business has many problems, but taxation is seldom one of them. Do they
really think the garment manufacturers on New York’s 7th Avenue are on the
phone, schmoozing about the rate of corporate taxation? More likely they
are talking about why the banks won’t lend, even against collateral, to
heretofore good customers; why imports from all over Asia are laying waste
to their customer base; and why the traffic in the cross-town streets is
Like all small businessmen, they don’t agonize over the frustration of
having to meet OSHA and EPA standards — these are irritants. Instead,
they agonize over whether there will be enough money to meet payroll.
Taxes, if any, come once a year, but the payroll keeps the small
entrepreneur anxious all year. It is the ogre that visits every two weeks.
To many, government is the problem; but not in the way legislators think.
The problem is the growing shortage of federal and state funds. This
affects many small businesses like builders, excavators, asphalt-layers
and the service industries that owe their survival to small contracts:
social service providers, translators, software writers, and consultants
in just about everything.
If you cut budgets, you cut small business.
Then there is the “chaining” of America. Local diners, hardware stores,
pharmacies and other retailing are crushed, annihilated when the chains
move in. The chains are not inherently evil, but they are manifestly
merciless. Walmart is but one of the chains putting small business to the
If those who administer government want to know something about small
business, they should spend a weekend at a strip-mall bakery or any other
firm with less than 50 employees. The experience would radically adjust
the rhetoric. It’s too late for Thursday, but don’t believe what you hear.
–For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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