Gold Mining: Balancing Risks and Rewards in an Unequal Divide

By Erica Schoenberger

Buckingham County faces the prospect of a gold mine within its borders. Many of the county’s residents are opposed to it. If it is permitted, there will no doubt be other companies looking to mine elsewhere in Virginia. The state has enlisted the help of the National Academies of Science and established an internal working group to assess possible environmental and social ramifications of mining. This is a conversation that needs to happen more widely because the stakes are very high.

Gold mining entails both risks and rewards. Who bears the risks and who reaps the rewards?  That is a critical question for Buckingham County and for Virginia.

The principal risks are environmental. These include acid mine drainage, cyanide spills and the failure of tailings storage dams.

Mining involves a lot of earth moving – no surprise. The snag is that the same geological processes that produce valuable metals such as gold also tend to produce sulfide minerals – compounds of sulfur and minerals. The digging and churning bring the sulfides to the surface. They react with water to form sulfuric acid. This creates acid mine drainage. The acid promotes the further release of toxic metals that may be present, such as cadmium, mercury or arsenic, into adjacent surface waters. A special feature of acid mine drainage is that it continues even after mining has stopped – essentially indefinitely.

Gold ores are processed with cyanide. The cyanide dissolves the gold which is then precipitated out through a variety of methods. Let’s suppose that heap leaching – where cyanide is sprayed onto a huge pile of ore in the open air – would not be permitted. The processing would then be contained in large vats which don’t pose any particular hazard. Nevertheless, large spills can occur during the transport and storage of the cyanide and the environmental impacts of those can be considerable.

The most common cause of mining-related environmental disasters is the collapse of the dam that contains the tailings. Tailings are what is left over after the ore is processed – a mixture of processing water, dirt and chemicals. Tailings dams are not built like ordinary dams. Instead of concrete, they are built with mine wastes – the worthless material shouldered aside as the mining progresses. Behind the dam, water management is the critical problem. The water needs to be kept away from the dam, held apart by a buffer of waste. Otherwise, seepage and erosion may lead to breaching.

The design of a tailings dam is normally calibrated on maximum likely storm activity. Increased storm intensity and frequency are one of the most likely consequences of climate change. Many dams that have remained intact for decades may be vulnerable to a new climate regime. Since the tailings never go away, a tailings dam in principle needs to last forever. This is, plainly, a tall order.

It is possible to mine without creating environmental disasters. It costs a great deal more and companies will generally prefer to avoid the additional costs. For Virginians, protecting against disaster requires at the least a stringent regulatory regime backed up by adequate resources for enforcement. Additional safeguards would be very high bonding requirements and independent engineering review of the plan for the mine and the tailings facility. All of these provisions require significant state resources.

What about the distribution of risks and benefits?

The mining company gets any profits. Locally, there will be some increased employment and incomes although a good share of these benefits will go to workers from elsewhere who have specialized skills. It’s fair to say that the potential rewards of a gold mine are heavily tilted towards the company.

The risks, on the other hand, are concentrated on the immediate area and downstream. Any negative environmental impacts will be felt locally. Any environmental disasters will be disasters for all the people in the way.

There is abundant evidence that low-income communities and communities of color throughout the U.S. are disproportionately exposed to environmental harms. This fact has fueled what is known as the environmental justice movement. It recognizes that environmental and social harms cannot be disentangled. In essence, social justice and environmental justice are one and the same thing.

The people of Buckingham County are not rich. The median household income in the county is just shy of $49,000 per year compared with $76,000 for the state. About 34 percent of the county’s population is African American compared with 20 percent for the state.

Buckingham County exactly fits the description of a community that faces a major environmental justice challenge. But it is not alone. Environmental justice is for everyone.

Erica Schoenberger teaches in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

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