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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surging Gold Demand Reveals Mine of Problems

NEW YORK -- There has always been an element of madness to gold's allure.

For thousands of years, something in the eternally lustrous metal has driven people to the outer edges of desire -- to have it and hoard it, to kill or conquer for it, to possess it like a lover.

In the early 1500s, King Ferdinand of Spain laid down the priorities as his conquistadors set out for the New World. "Get gold," he told them. "Humanely if possible, but at all costs, get gold."

The price of gold is higher than it has been in 17 years -- pushing $500 an ounce. But much of the gold left to be mined is microscopic and is being wrung from the earth at enormous environmental cost, often in some of the poorest corners of the world.

And unlike past gold manias, from the time of the pharaohs to the California forty-niners, this one has little to do with girding empires, economies or currencies. It is almost all about the soaring demand for jewelry, which consumes 80 percent or more of the gold mined today.

The extravagance of the moment is provoking a storm among environmental groups and communities near the mines, and forcing even some at Tiffany & Co. and the world's largest mining companies to confront uncomfortable questions about the real costs of mining gold.

"The biggest challenge we face is the absence of a set of clearly defined, broadly accepted standards for environmentally and socially responsible mining," said Tiffany's chairman, Michael Kowalski. He took out a full-page advertisement last year urging miners to make "urgently needed" reforms.

The newly moneyed consumers who line the malls of Shanghai and the bazaars of Mumbai sent jewelry sales shooting to a record $38 billion this year, according to the World Gold Council, the industry trade group.

Over the last year, sales surged 11 percent in China and 47 percent in India, a country of a billion people whose seemingly insatiable appetite for gold -- for jewelry, temples and dowries -- has traditionally made it gold's largest consumer.

The United States, the world's second-largest consumer of gold, is also the world's largest holder of gold reserves. The government has 8,134 tons secured in vaults, about $122 billion worth. The U.S. Federal Reserve and other major central banks renewed an agreement last year to severely restrict sales from their reserves, offering, in effect, a price support to gold.

Poisoning the Earth

At sites like Yanacocha, a sprawling mine in northern Peru run by Newmont, 1 ounce of gold is sprinkled in 30 tons of ore. But to get at that ore, many more tons of earth have to be moved, then left as waste. At some mines in Nevada, 100 tons or more of earth have to be excavated for a single ounce of gold, said Ann Maest, a geochemist who consults on mining issues.

Mining companies say they are meeting a demand and that this kind of gold mining, called cyanide heap leaching, is as good a use of the land as any, or better.

Cyanide is not the only option. But it is considered the most cost-effective way to retrieve microscopic bits of "invisible gold." Profit margins are too thin, miners say, and the gold left in the world too scarce to mine it any other way.

"The heap is cheaper," said Shannon Dunlap, an environmental manager with Placer Dome. "Our ore wouldn't work without the heap."

But much of those masses of disturbed rock, exposed to the rain and air for the first time, are also the source of mining's multibillion-dollar environmental time bomb. Sulfides in that rock will react with oxygen, making sulfuric acid.

That acid pollutes and it also frees heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury, which are harmful to people and fish even at low concentrations. The chain reaction can go on for centuries.

Many industry officials, reluctant to utter the word pollution, protest that much of what they leave behind is not waste at all but ground-up rock. The best-run mines reclaim land along the way, they say, "capping" the rock piles with soil and using lime to try to forestall acid generation.

But stopping pollution forever is difficult. Even rock piles that are capped, in an attempt to keep out air and rain, can release pollutants, particularly in wet climates.

"Mining problems weren't considered a very high priority" in past decades, Thomas Dunne, the agency's acting assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in an interview. "But they are a concern now."

Profit & Poverty

With the costs and scrutiny of mining on the rise in rich countries, where the best ores have been depleted, 70 percent of gold is now mined in developing countries, and gold companies are striking out to remote corners of the globe led by a powerful guide: the World Bank.

The bank, the pre-eminent institution for alleviating world poverty, has argued that multinational mining companies would bring investment, as well as roads, schools and jobs, to countries with little else to offer than their natural resources. For the bank, which tries to draw private investment to underdeveloped lands, the logic was simple.

"We invest to help reduce poverty and help improve people's lives," said Rashad-Rudolf Kaldany, head of oil, gas and mining at the bank's profit-making arm, the International Finance Corporation.

The bank has worked both ends of the equation. At its urging, more than 100 cash-strapped governments have agreed to cut taxes and royalties to lure big mining companies, said James Otto, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver law school.

At the same time, the bank put up money for or insured more than 30 gold-mining projects, looking for profits.

Though mining was a small part of the bank's portfolio, it was not without controversy as accidents mounted. In one of the worst disasters, in 1995, a mine in Guyana insured by the bank spilled more than 3 million liters of cyanide-laced mine waste into a tributary of the Essequibo River, the country's main water source.

By 2001, the World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, imposed a two-year moratorium on mining investments and ordered a review of its involvement in the industry.

Emil Salim, a former minister of environment of Indonesia, led the study. "I said, up to now the International Finance Corporation was only listening to business," he said in an interview in Jakarta. "I said, so now let's give some voice to civil society."

Salim recommended reducing the use of cyanide, banning the disposal of waste in rivers and oceans, and giving communities veto power over mining company plans.

But the industry complained. And developing country governments said they liked the bank's loans to gold mines. In the end, the bank settled on more modest goals.

It pledged to make environmental impact statements understandable to villagers and to back only projects with broad community support. It also urged governments to spend mining companies' taxes and royalties in the communities near the mines.

But critics and environmental groups say the bank demands little from the mining companies in return for its money and its seal of approval.

The bank's guidelines for arsenic in drinking water are less stringent than those of the World Health Organization, and mercury contamination levels are more lenient than those permitted by the EPA, said Andrea Durbin, a consultant to nongovernmental groups pressing for tougher standards.

The International Finance Corporation is drafting new guidelines that will clarify what it expects from miners, said Rachel Kyte, its director of environment and social development.

But the draft rules give mining companies even more latitude, said Manish Bapna, the executive director of the Bank Information Center, a group that monitors the bank. They will make it easier for companies to evict indigenous people and to mine in some of the globe's most treasured habitats, he said.

Despite the World Bank's two-year review, little has changed, said Robert Goodland, a former director of environment at the bank who was an adviser on the study. "The bank insists on business as usual," he said.

Guatemalan Model Mine

The first piece of new mining business the bank invested in after its review can be found today in the humid, green hills of western Guatemala.

Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, a big burly man who mixes politics and religion with ease, does not understand why the World Bank lent $45 million to a rich multinational company for a gold mine in his impoverished region of Mayan farmers.

"Why not spend the money directly to help the people?" he asked.

Sprawled across a deep wooded valley, a new mine built by Glamis Gold, a Canadian company, was chosen by the World Bank last year as a new model for how gold mining could help poor people.

But the mine has faced protest at every turn.

At the June 2004 board meeting of the IFC, there was considerable skepticism about its $45 million loan to Glamis.

Members questioned why a $261 million project was creating only 160 long-term jobs and giving money to a "well capitalized" company like Glamis at all, according to minutes of the meeting provided to The New York Times by a nongovernmental group opposed to the project.

Others were worried that the IFC was relying too heavily on information from Glamis about the potential for pollution.

The World Bank had pledged to back only mines with broad local support. But on the ground in Guatemala, opposition boiled over last December.

Angry farmers set up a roadblock to stop trailers carrying huge grinding machines for the mine. After 40 days, and battles between police and protesters, the equipment had to be escorted by soldiers.

To persuade the villagers of the mine's benefits, Glamis flew 19 planeloads of farmers to a mine it runs in Honduras.

But the villagers of Sipicapa still wanted their voices heard. On a cool Saturday morning in June, more than 2,600 men and women dressed in their weekend best, with children in tow, crowded into the community's yards, churches and verandas to vote in a nonbinding referendum.

At that, a church full of local people raised their hands in a unanimous show of opposition to the mine.

Much of the peasants' fury was informed by Robert Moran, an American hydrogeologist, who was asked by Madre Selva, a Guatemalan nongovernmental organization, to visit the mine and review its environmental impact statement.

Moran, who was on the advisory board of the bank's mining study, found it badly lacking. It did not address the "very large quantities of water" the mine would use, or give basic information on the "massive volumes" of waste the mine would produce, he said.

Tim Miller, vice president of Central American operations for Glamis, said the environmental impact statement had been a "working document."

In Guatemala City, the vice minister of mining, Jorge Antonio Garcia Chiu, defended approval of the mine, saying it followed four months of consultation.

Kaldany, the IFC official, said the investment and the environmental impact statement were both sound. "We are a bank," he said. "We go on the basis of a business development project. Then, as well, the bank asks: Are we needed? Are we adding any value?"

Glamis had already spent $1.3 million on social programs in the villages as part of the bank's requirements, Kaldany said.

At the mine, the grinding and churning of new machinery being tested already echoes across the valley. Production could begin as early as November.

Miller, of Glamis, said the mine was a winner for the people, and his company. In fact, he said, Glamis did not need the bank, the bank came to Glamis.

Bank officials "were anxious to make some investments" in the region, he said. The company is expecting to gross $1 billion over the life of the mine, with profits of $200 to $300 million.

"That's a return of about 25 to 30 percent," he said.