The sad story of gold mining plays out on many levels. In large scale mechanized mining, there is often little regard for the environment. The danger to biodiversity begins when roads are built for purposes of exploration and as land is cleared for settlement. The ongoing operations of large scale mechanized mining are also terribly destructive both to the land and to adjacent aquatic ecosystems. And all too often, the spoils of the process continue to poison the environment long after commercial operations have ceased. In short, mining without an awareness of issues related to the environment can result in drastic and permanent changes in the mining areas.
Mining does not, however, become ecological simply through the elimination of large mining machines. Many artisanal (manual) and small scale miners around the world use excavation and extraction techniques which are harmful both to themselves and to the environment. One example is the use of cyanide and mercury to separate gold from rock. The cyanide and mercury are frequently dispersed into the environment, and the toxic mercury is very often inhaled by the miners. Clearly, a simple switch from large mechanized to small scale alluvial mining is not sufficient. Even those smaller miners need to adopt techniques to protect themselves and the environment in which they work.
Gold and mercury are married, and the marriage is toxic. Large-scale gold mining operations are a source of mercury, extracting the unneeded metal along with gold. Small-scale artisanal gold mines in developing countries employ large amounts of mercury to produce gold.
The mercury used by small-scale operations not only poisons the workers and their families, but is also dispersed directly into rivers, irreversibly contaminating the local fisheries and environment. Over time, dispersed mercury circulates globally, concentrating in polar regions and in the food chain. The planetary loading of this toxic element has reached a critical stage, impacting all of us. The linkage between gold mining and mercury is a deadly one that is irrevocably impacting our children's health, our precious marine resources, and the air we breathe.