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Snowshoe hares near the now closed Giant Mine outside of Yellowknife, N.W.T show signs of arsenic contamination. Denali NPS / Flickr / CC BY-SA

By Som Niyogi and Solomon Amuno

Even though it was closed decades ago, the Giant Mine on the outskirts of Yellowknife has left a long environmental legacy.

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On Aug. 4, an approximately 580 acre impoundment failed at a Canadian gold and copper mine near Likely, British Columbia. The breach at Imperial Metal's Mt. Polley mine dumped an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of toxic mine waste into the surrounding environment. On Aug. 5, Landsat 8 acquired an image of the mine showing that grey sludge from the tailings dam has entered Polley Lake, saturated the entire length of Hazeltine Creek and entered Quesnel Lake more than five miles downstream of the failed impoundment. 

BEFORE: Mt. Polley Mine and Quesnel Lake, British Columbia, Canada: A Landsat 8 satellite image acquired July 29 shows the pond intact and Hazeltine Creek barely visible. Source: USGS/Landsat

The spill has prompted drinking water bans throughout the region, since the pond contains a slurry laden with arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and other toxic metals and compounds.

AFTER. The pond has breached and grey mine waste can be seen entering Quesnel Lake over five miles away. Credit: USGS via SkyTruth

The president of Imperial Metals, Brian Kynoch, claims that the water in the tailings pond is "near drinking water quality" and expressed disbelief that the impoundment could fail so catastrophically, despite the fact that Canadian officials had issued multiple warnings to Imperial Metals for exceeding water quality standards for effluent and exceeding the permitted wastewater levels in the pond.

Local citizens anticipating the arrival of a salmon run now fear the worst for the environment and tourism, especially as they begin to document dead fish in Quesnel Lake. 

Environmental groups across North America will be watching this story closely given the similarities to the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, the world's most productive wild salmon fishery. Tailings ponds at Pebble mine would cover a surface area 13 times larger than the Mt. Polley impoundment and would have similar earthen dams taller than the Washington Monument.

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Some 80 jewelry retailers from around the world, including eight of the top 10 retailers in the U.S., have committed to cleaning up dirty metals by signing the No Dirty Gold campaign's Golden Rules for more responsible metals sourcing.

The Golden Rules are a set of social, human rights and environmental criteria for gold and other precious metals. Jewelers who have signed the Golden Rules are committed to selling gold jewelry that is mined and smelted responsibly.

This is good news for consumers, the environment and the communities who live with metals mining says No Dirty Gold campaign director Payal Sampat. "Dirty gold must become a thing of the past," she said. "No one wants their Valentine's Day jewelry tainted with human rights abuses or toxic pollution. But this can't happen unless companies like Macy's commit to cleaning up their supply chains and sign the Golden Rules."

Macy's is one of the last major jewelry retailers to sign the Golden Rules. The department store chain, which includes Bloomingdale's, is the fifth-largest retailer of gold jewelry in the U.S., with more than 800 locations in 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.

On Feb. 13, activists with the No Dirty Gold campaign hung a balloon banner at the Macy's Washington, D.C. store, reading, "Macy's: Don't Break Our Hearts. Dump Dirty Gold."

"Until Macy's ends its love affair with dirty gold, the company's commitment to sustainability and transparency is just a bunch of hot air," said No Dirty Gold campaign coordinator Nick Magel.

Costco, the ninth largest U.S. jewelry retailer, headquartered in Issaquah, Wa., has also declined to sign the Golden Rules.

Sampat says the campaign's effort to secure commitments from jewelers to oppose dirty gold production is a crucial step because about 80 percent of newly mined gold is made into jewelry.

The world's largest jewelry retailers, including Walmart, Sterling, Zale's, Tiffany & Co., QVC, Target, Sears/Kmart and JCPenney have all committed to study their metals' supply chains, revise their supplier sourcing criteria to include the Golden Rules and increase recycled gold content.

Michelle Pearlman, senior vice president and president of Jewelry, Sears Holdings, said, "The No Dirty Gold campaign is a great initiative that pushes for sustainability and ethical sourcing on gold. We are proud to be a part of it and to offer our customers gold that was obtained in a responsible manner. Sears strives to be a green company and we will continue to work to build lifetime relationships with our customers starting from the mines up."

Cyanide used in leaching gold from ore can pollute water resources and kill aquatic life. Gold mining can pollute nearby waters with acid mine drainage, which is harmful to wildlife and people. Some mines discharge toxic waste in rivers, lakes or oceans, or store the waste tailings in reservoirs that can leak or burst. Mine wastes include byproducts like mercury and heavy metals, which can enter the food chain and sicken people and animals.

Refining the gold in smelter furnaces releases air pollution, especially oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, which are components of smog and acid rain, as well as lead. Smelters release tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The Golden Rules call on mining companies to meet these basic standards in their operations:

  •     Respect basic human rights outlined in international conventions and law
  •     Obtain the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities
  •     Respect workers' rights and labor standards, including safe working conditions
  •     Ensure that operations are not located in areas of armed or militarized conflict
  •     Ensure that projects do not force communities off their lands
  •     Ensure that projects are not located in protected areas, fragile ecosystems, or other areas of high conservation or ecological value
  •     Refrain from dumping mine wastes into the ocean, rivers, lakes or streams
  •     Ensure that projects do not contaminate water, soil or air with sulfuric acid drainage or other toxic chemicals
  •     Cover all costs of closing down and cleaning up mine sites
  •     Fully disclose information about social and environmental effects of projects
  •     Allow independent verification of the above

Marc Choyt, president, Reflective Images, a Santa Fe-based jewelry company known for its modern Celtic designs, takes pride in his signature on The Golden Rules. "We are 100 percent in support of the No Dirty Gold campaign," he said. "Precious metals mining causes tons of toxic pollution and is often tied to human rights abuses, which are unacceptable to us and our customers."

"Not only do we manufacture exclusively with recycled gold," said Choyt, "but in 2008, my company was perhaps the first manufacturer in the jewelry sector to move its entire American and international manufacturing to recycled silver as well. We are now creating ethical mine-to-market custody, and also write the Internet's leading resource on fair trade jewelry issues, www.fairjewelry.org."

A number of jewelers who have signed The Golden Rules have also signed a pledge to refrain from buying any gold that might be produced from the proposed Anglo American Pebble Mine due to concerns that it will ruin one of the world's richest salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

The proposed Pebble Mine would siphon as much as 35 billion gallons of fresh water out of the headwaters of Bristol Bay every year, eliminating critical salmon habitat, finds a new report released last week.

Produced by the Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited, the report details multiple concerns with excavating Pebble's massive deposit of copper, gold, and molybdenum.

Approval of the mine and its infrastructure will likely spur a much larger mining district, substantially increasing odds that mining will harm Bristol Bay's wild salmon, the report found. Pebble's infrastructure would enable mining claims covering 793 square miles, an area 10 times larger than Washington, D.C.

After examining a wide body of scientific information, the report concludes that too much is at stake ecologically, economically and culturally to risk mine development.

Tiffany & Co. Chairman and CEO Michael Kowalski said, "There are some special places where mining clearly does not represent the best long-term use of resources. In Bristol Bay, we believe the extraordinary salmon fishery clearly provides the best opportunity to benefit Southwestern Alaskan communities in a sustainable way. For Tiffany & Co.,—and we believe for many of our fellow retail jewelers—this means we must look to other places to responsibly source our gold."

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