It’s being called one of the biggest environmental disasters in Canada in decades. A dam built to hold toxic waste burst last month at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in British Columbia. Thousands of Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of gray toxic sludge were released into pristine lakes and rivers, causing serious environmental damage.
At Brilliant Earth, we use recycled precious metals in our jewelry to avoid contributing to dirty gold mining. That’s because industrial gold mining creates huge amounts of toxic waste—about 20 tons for every gold ring. Gold mines usually create ponds, held back by earthen dams, to store that waste. The problem is that those dams can leak or fail, releasing toxic substances into the environment. The sludge released in the Mount Polley mine disaster contained arsenic, lead, copper, and mercury.
An investigation is underway into the reasons for the spill and the damage caused. But already, the harm has been significant. Hundreds of people went without clean drinking water for days. The spill has hurt tourism, put a halt to hunting and fishing, and interfered with the lifestyle of native Canadian peoples. Yesterday, the company that runs the mine admitted that the spill was 78 percent larger than first estimated.
What can be done to prevent these spills from happening? Globally, more than 3,500 dams have been created to store toxic mine waste. These dams aren’t temporary solutions; they’re intended to store the waste permanently, for all time. Given the number of dams and the fact that they never go away, spills of this sort will always be hard to stop completely. Indeed, in the month since the Mount Polley disaster, there’s been another spill at a copper mine in Mexico.
Still, there are steps that can be taken to avoid these disasters. One is to prevent new gold mines from opening in the first place—especially in biologically sensitive areas such as Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, the site of a controversial proposed gold and copper mine. For mines now in existence, regulators and mining companies need to a do a better job reducing the risks and performing regular monitoring.
Both these solutions will take political pressure. The jewelry industry should be part of that push, since more than half of all gold is used to make jewelry. This Canadian news video on the Mount Polley mine disaster provides a stunning depiction of what it looks like when one of these dams breaks. It’s not pretty. And to us, it’s a major contradiction that beautiful lakes and rivers are being destroyed with the goal of producing a product, jewelry, meant to beautify.