hearts and minds

August 6, 2006

The 21st Century Bite of the Gold Bug

Filed under: Environment,Metal sulfide mining,Toxins — Hearts & Minds @ 11:07 am

There’s RAW GOLD in Wisconsin and you have a vested interest in it. You’re vested because it’s taxpayer’s money that has funded the research, the ‘pure’ science, the surveys and publications done through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Geological Survey, NOAA, the U.S Navy, and the University of Wisconsin that has been given to (and used free of charge by) trans-national mining corporations in order to ‘discover’ and exploit the lodes of commercial minerals hidden within the earth’s crust. Gold is no longer discovered by a grizzled, tobacco chawing sourdough with mule, pick and pan. Now the mining moguls use you and me (through our tax supported institutions) to find the gold for them.

You’re vested because this land is your land, and this air and water is your air and water. If some foreign entity is about to despoil this land and your air and water and your children’s future, to get the gold that your tax money helped find, it’s your rights that are being extracted. Gold means greed and deceit and it always has.

We were surprised when we discovered that the foot-in-the-door Flambeau mine was a gold mine and that 88,000 ounces of pure gold was extracted from it in it’s first year of operation alone. Skillings Mining Review in January 1995, documented that the “…gold production of Flambeau…was 17% of the gold produced in 1993 by Bingham Canyon, RTZ’s largest source of gold.” RTZ (Rio Tinto Zinc), a British trans-national, owned the huge Kennicott Corporation which owned the little Flambeau Mining Company which extracted from that bend in the river near Ladysmith, Wisconsin a very significant percentage of the total gold produced worldwide by the world’s largest mining group. That’s not a “minor amount” of gold.

The Flambeau ore was so rich that the mine operators not only took the ore out of the ground, they loaded that raw unprocessed ore into railroad cars and away it went, straight out of the country. It wasn’t processed here. No chemicals were used at the mine for processing, no cyanide heap leaching, no sulfuric acid generating tailings left on site. Ore bodies are virtually never mined and processed this way. You can bet the farm that the Crandon ore body won’t be done this way. This is not an example of nice clean modern mining technology, it’s an example of how a hundred million dollars in gold can be whisked right from under our noses, right out of America before we know what’s happened.

The environmental damages of mining in massive metallic sulfide ores are not primarily caused by digging the hole, they are a result of the processing and the tailings left behind. And those rail cars rumbling north carried with them the thorny toxic problems of processing and tailings along with the gold bonanza. We won’t be so “lucky” if that bogus story about a “clean” Flambeau mine serves to open the official permitting door to all the larger mining claims lurking in the wings in Northern Wisconsin.

Among the severe threats posed by mining for metals, especially gold, in massive sulfide ore bodies are three categories of known biochemical dangers to life and the environment. For the sake of our families, for the sake of future generations, out of love and respect for our planet for which we claim stewardship, we cannot remain ignorant of these dangers while the corporate engines warm and rev for the green light:

One: Metallic sulfide mining and processing transforms underground solid rock into a powder from which the desired mineral is extracted. The great bulk of the ore remains on site as tailings. These millions of tons of powdered sulfides, when exposed to air and water (through rain, flood, weathering, erosion, landslide, earthquake, or defect of design or construction) react to form sulfuric acid. If it doesn’t happen now, or in ten years, it will happen. Wrapping it in plastic, stuffing it down a hole, hiding it behind an earthen dam, covering it with a layer of dirt and planting grass – these are simply tricks, and they might fool a fool, but they won’t fool Mother Nature. Sooner or later that stuff will contact air and water, and then, as it happens – acid happens.

Two: Cyanide, proprietary processes and secret chemicals are used to extract metals from sulfide ore without adequate oversight. We can assume these processes and compounds are good for the corporate bottom line. We cannot naively trust the corporate spokespersons assurances that they pose no hazard to us, the environment or our future. The proposed Crandon Mine alone would require 10 to 20 tons of sodium cyanide to be shipped into Wisconsin monthly for the purported 28 year life of the mine, where it will be put into solution and dispersed through the pulverized ore to extract gold. Again we are assured that nothing will go wrong and no harm will result. We are patronized with pronouncements that the concentrations of cyanide are less than in a cup of coffee. Cyanide has not yet been used in Wisconsin mining, but it has been used elsewhere with predictably disastrous results for things that used to live there. Due to these ugly experiences, and in spite of stiff opposition from mining trans-nationals, Montana and Czechoslovakia have banned the use of cyanide in mining and so should Wisconsin before it’s too late.

Three: A new potentially more serious threat is posed by state-of-the-art industrial strains of bacteria, which can assist in cheaper gold extraction. Corporate miners will seek to introduce them and this new technology, but it is certainly not, as the PR men claim, environmentally benign. Genetically modified bacteria will be added to the same ore on which cyanide and other processing chemicals will be used. Analyzing what can go wrong with this living toxic soup is difficult because (a) the processes are considered commercial secrets (b) the rich and politically influential corporations that wish to use these processes worldwide are motivated by bottom-line profits over and far above any other considerations, and (c) The latest discoveries in gene science demonstrate clearly that while tremendous progress in understanding genetic structure has been made, we are only beginning to understand the processes of genetic function and modification.

This third point is crucial. We know that even naturally occurring bacteria have important roles in disease. For example, mercury poisoning from waterway sediments contaminated by industrial pollution occurs because certain bacteria convert waste mercury to the form which is most toxic (mono-methyl mercury) and which also bio-accumulates (i.e. the higher up the food chain you eat, the more of this most toxic form you get and keep in your body). You can see the potential danger. Some of these industrial bacteria are a new breed, with adaptive mechanisms and metabolism and characteristics that are new to the rest of life and to our environment, modified to allow them to survive in conditions that would kill anything else. Our bodies may not have effective defenses against them or their by-products. They will be intentionally mixed in large quantities with the process ore, with the environment altered to optimize conditions for their growth and reproduction. Although spliced genes may let these freak bacteria survive in boiling hot poison while making enzymes to suck up the gold, it is all but certain that the altered DNA and organism will have numerous other as yet undiscovered effects. The accountants and corporate officers want to see that gold. But do we want to see what the collateral damage is going to be?

The knowledge we have gained has proceeded by stages which have coincided with the escalation of threats both posed and camouflaged by the sulfide mining industry, and with the musical chairs game of ownership and responsibility for the proposed Northern Wisconsin mining district. First Exxon Corporation, then Rio Algom (a spinoff of huge Rio Tinto Zinc, of England), then Billiton ( a giant spinoff of Gencor, headquartered in South Africa), and lately BHP, the Australian conglomerate, (see “Multinational Monitor”, December 1995 and March and September 1996) have taken turns owning the quaint little Crandon storefront “local mining company” just in the last ten years.

Periodically the pseudo-local man in the storefront comes out from behind the curtain to tip a cup, shmooze at a barbeque, or support the local hot rods or kiddy care, and make some reassuring, condescending, demeaning pronouncements about how completely safe everything they do is, and what great pains they are taking, and how nothing can possibly go wrong. He declares with an incredibly straight face that “we” will be here to take care of any problems, “we” will be responsible in perpetuity. Unbelievable.

These international corporate giants have been passing the puppet strings around so fast, nobody knows who’s going to own it when the music stops, or how many times they’re going to pass it on afterwards if the mining ever starts. After the gold is gone, when there’s nothing left to be “discovered” but the toxic consequences, what kind of an empty corporate shell do you think will be left holding the bag when the bad news starts trickling or flooding in? The Crandon mine (contrary to what many citizens mistakenly believe) has not gone away, and the application process is nearing completion in front of a compliant DNR. If the Flambeau mine was a foot in the door, the Crandon mine is an effort to break the door down. Unless we can stop the Crandon mine, the dozens of other similar proposed mines in the region will flood through the breach, and Northern Wisconsin will be transformed into a metallic sulfide mining district.

We must enforce the Churchill Metallic Sulfide Mining Moratorium Law. We know the multi-nationals don’t like or respect this law. They lobbied to kill it and lobbied to gut it. But they have to follow the law, and our government officials must enforce the law.

The examples the mining industry submitted are not similar mines in massive sulfide deposits that didn’t pollute. They’re calling a squirrel a horse because it has legs and a tail. A mine in a three percent sulfide deposit in bone dry desert or high arctic permafrost with two inches precipitation per year is not similar to Northern Wisconsin with its seventy percent sulfide ore bodies, with a close to the surface, non-frozen water table, with its systems of groundwater transport, and networks of wonderful lakes, creeks, rivers, and wetlands. A mine site whose processing and tailings were moved off site is irrelevant, except that it demonstrates the eagerness of the industry to deceive. The examples submitted plainly prove that there is no example of a similar mine anywhere in North America (or the world) in massive sulfide ore that has been operated for at least ten years and closed at least ten years without causing toxic pollution. Until such example can be satisfactorily demonstrated no such mine can be permitted. This law must no longer be ignored.

We must ban cyanide, secret processes that endanger life, and the use of bacteria in mining, including gene spliced organisms. Clean water is an infinitely more valuable mineral than gold or silver.

We can no longer ignore the social and environmental costs of industrial gold mining. Gold unleashes the beast of greed. The demand, the grasp for permits will be tenacious, and regard and respect for the land, the water, the communities, the people, will disappear as soon as the permits are issued. With gold mining comes sulfuric acid, cyanide and now genetically modified bacteria.

Gold mining has caused environmental and cultural devastation worldwide. The Lakota people have a word for gold that translates as “the metal that makes white man crazy”. Gold is why the gentle people whose home in the Caribbean Islands was invaded by Columbus were all killed within a few generations. Greed for gold fueled genocide and the destruction of entire civilizations, and is the reason many of the treaties with indigenous peoples were so egregiously violated before the ink was dry. Gold is not a pretty metal. It has a terrible history and getting it causes intolerable harm.

Know that the great majority of gold is used for non-utilitarian purposes. 85 percent of gold is mined for jewelry! What an irony that we ignore the ugly effects and history of gold when choosing a symbol of our lifelong love and commitment for one another, or to represent pride and honor. We have forgotten the parable of King Midas and the lesson is getting more costly.

Don’t Buy Gold. Don’t Give Gold. Don’t Accept Gold.


( message from the River Underground)


1 Comment »

  1. Clyde, that is a very thought provoking explanation of the situation and it frightens me to think that so much activity like this is being done by foreign companies which take the profits, but leave the residue to us. This essay needs more exposure!

    Comment by ralph f — December 8, 2009 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

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