A new report has found evidence that a gold mine in Central America, now in the process of being closed, may leave a bitter legacy.
The San Martin mine, in the Siria Valley of Honduras, is operated by Goldcorp, one of the world’s largest gold mining companies. Since the mine opened in 2000, community groups and international NGOs, including the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), have been protesting pollution caused by the mine. Arsenic, cyanide and other heavy metals have leached from the mine site, causing health problems among local residents, according to CAFOD. The mine also has caused water shortages, the displacement of a village, the loss of agricultural land, and deforestation.
The latest report from CAFOD and the Canadian chapter of Development and Peace, another aid organization, indicates that the mine may cause problems even after its closure, scheduled for the end of this year. According to the report, water samples taken a year ago by Honduran authorities registered acidity levels between 2.5 and 3 on the ph scale—the same acidity found in lemon juice and vinegar. (By comparison, distilled water has a ph of 7.) The high acidity levels are a symptom of acidic mine drainage, a process that occurs when sulphide deposits, normally buried under layers of rock, are exposed to the open air as a result of mining. The deposits break down and release acidity into the water supply, with devastating effects on communities and wildlife. Acidic mine drainage at the San Martin mine is potentially a very long-term problem.
Unfortunately, neither the Honduran government nor Goldcorp has demonstrated much reliability in keeping the water supply safe. Honduran authorities, upon discovering the low pH levels, improperly chose not to publicize the information or take action against Goldcorp. The information was made public only through the efforts of researchers from Newcastle University in the UK, who worked with aid organizations to prepare the report. Goldcorp, for its part, has not committed to a monitoring or remediation plan to assure the safety of the water supply after it leaves. In fact, Goldcorp has never publicly admitted that the San Martin mine has caused any pollution at all.
The story of the San Martin mine is another example of the staggering human and environmental costs associated with unethical gold mining. Brilliant Earth recently blogged about the link between gold mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the civil conflict in that country—a conflict that has claimed 5 million lives. Significant change is needed in the way gold is mined. Brilliant Earth supports efforts to establish an international certification system for fair trade gold and uses recycled precious metals in every piece of jewelry.