It's great to have some good news to share, and this one's a whopper. Mercury air pollution from U.S. gold mines has dropped by half - from over 5,000 pounds in 2006 to 2,500 pounds in 2012. This is a remarkable change!
The biggest polluters were giant, open-pit gold mines in northern Nevada, where the amount of mercury pollution was off the charts! Yet, there were no regulations that required these mines to control their emissions.
While much attention has been placed on coal-fired power plants and their mercury emissions, scant notice has been paid to gold mines and their role as the fifth largest source of mercury air emissions in the U.S. Most of the mercury air emissions from gold mines are released by mines that use ore roasters to process the gold.
An investigation in the Broward-Palm Beach and Miami New Times showed that Walmart's "Love, Earth" jewelry line comes at the cost of workers' rights, health, and safety, and at the cost of communities and the environment around the mines. The jewelry line claims to be from responsible sources but is made under oppressive labor conditions and with gold and silver from polluting mines in Nevada and Utah.
The Western Shoshone Defense Project and Great Basin Resource Watch joined EARTHWORKS in sending a letter to Walmart. The letter calls on Walmart to drop the Love, Earth label until the jewelry line has independent, third party verification that it complies with the Golden Rules for responsible sourcing, and has properly consulted with affected communities and civil society about responsible sourcing.
We became aware of the need for these regulations thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory, which requires large polluters to publicly and annually report their pollution.
When the issue was initially identified in 1998, gold mining was the 2nd largest mercury air polluter after coal power plants. (Metal mining was and still is the largest total mercury polluter -- by far -- when you count land and water releases in addition to air.)
This is an important issue because mercury air pollution is very toxic. Children of women exposed to relatively high levels of methylmercury during pregnancy show delayed onset of walking and talking, reduced neurological test scores, and delays and deficits in learning ability.
On Wednesday, UK jewelers announced the launch of "Fairtrade" gold jewelry. Some jewelers have already been using gold from these same Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) mines, but two of the mines have recently been certified "Fairtrade." What are these mines, and what does "Fairtrade gold" mean?
The mines, one in Colombia and one in Bolivia, demonstrate both the potential benefits and the problems of the Alliance for Responsible Mining/Fairtrade Labeling Organization certification standards for "Fairtrade" and "Fairmined." The mining and certification may well benefit the communities on the short-term, and the Colombian Oro Verde mine does not use mercury or cyanide. On the other hand, reclamation and restoration standards are poorly defined at both mines, and the Bolivian mine allows mercury use and is located in a National Park. The Colombian mine is in the Choc , a department that has experienced significant armed conflict.
A new investigation in the Broward-Palm Beach and Miami New Times has shed more light on Wal-Mart's "Love, Earth" jewelry line, and it's not looking so Lovely. In fact, the jewelry's looking rather like dirty gold: it comes at a great cost to jewelry factory workers and to the environment and communities around the mines.
As 2010 draws to a close, I ve been thinking a lot about the great work the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been doing to try and regulate extractive industries in this country to protect communities and the environment. With the study on the impacts that hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water, and their plans to regulate mercury emissions from mining operations under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is attempting to move this country towards better regulated extraction. There s still a long way to go, of course, but there is a lot that EPA can do to protect our water, air, land and public health in the coming months.
So, what can EPA do through the end of this year and into 2011 to continue this path toward better regulation?