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Can Modern Gold Mining Be Sustainable?

It’s a core part of California lore. Back in 1848, golden rocks were discovered in the hills north of Sacramento.The value of the element caught attention nationally, drawing thousands of hopeful miners out to northern California. The small state trading post of San Francisco quickly boomed into a large city.

Gold mining still happens today, with higher yields than ever before. Considering mining’s impact on the planet, and the global appetite for gold, we decided to visit a working mine near Shasta, California.

There's gold in those hills. On the road to the Washington gold mine in French Gulch, California. Photo by Spencer Millsap.

Gone are the days of panning for gold in the nearby rivers and stumbling upon large nuggets. Tim Callaway, president of Shasta Gold Corporation, runs the massive Washington Mine about 30 miles northeast of Redding. At full production, his miners expect to recover “tens of thousands” of ounces each year (it’s forbidden for miners to discuss their actual bounty).

In full safety gear and headlamps, Callaway’s team took me and National Geographic videographer Spencer Millsap 600 feet down into the mine, through dark and musty passages carved from solid rock. Modern gold mining involves excavating a series of geologic veins that are rich in gold. Then the rocks are pulled to the surface to be ground into dust. Large boulders can result in just a few teaspoons of gold powder. After the powder is melted down you get the color and weight of an ounce of solid gold—on today’s market, worth about $1,700.

It’s an extensive and energy intensive process. Yet Callaway thinks that, in some ways, gold mining might be considered sustainable.

Certainly any time of mineral extraction can never be fully sustainable, he admits. Pulling ancient minerals out of the earth faster than the planet makes them means they’ll eventually be completely gone. But that day is far off.

From large boulders come a few good ounces of refined gold. Photo by Spencer Millsap

Despite what jewelers might tell you, gold isn’t really that scarce. Roughly 190 million ounces have been extracted since the California gold rush. Some geologists suspect there may be a hundred times that amount still in the hills of California—and even more around the globe. “We’re just scratching the surface,” Mitch Jones, the mine’s head geologist, told us.

Gold has powerful economics behind it that stabilize its impact on the planet. Like many minerals, the price of gold fluctuates every day based on global supply and demand. With too much available gold on the market, the price drops, making gold mining more expensive. “We can only mine as long as the price is favorable,” Callaway told me in the bungalow he uses for an office.

That idea is one of the chief arguments used by advocates of a national gold standard: The slow-moving cost of mining for new gold can ensure the broader economy stays in relative balance. It’s a strong argument for pseudo-sustainability. Though we depend on energy commodities such as coal or natural gas, we have no national dependence on gold. We just have a penchant for it. Companies will only extract gold as long as people are willing to pay higher and higher prices, as the costs of going deeper and deeper rise. It’s a unique balance mostly based on desire, not need.

The mining process is still enough to make any environmentalist cringe. Yet while walking the dark tunnels, it was worth thinking about the comparative impact. Gold mining doesn’t blast away mountains, like coal, nor risk massive spills, like oil. Brackish water containing arsenic and other contaminants does comes out of the mine, although federal environmental regulators require it be filtered to be cleaner than mountain spring water before it is released into streams.

Seeing modern mining at work had a farm-to-table element. Just as food activists suggest becoming better acquainted with where your beef or vegetables come from, seeing how the gold on your ring or watch actually materializes gives a more accurate picture of its true cost.

Callaway hopes global demand for gold will steadily increase over the next few decades. At that rate, he says, his operation could continue unstopped for the next hundred years or more.

Comments

  1. sandra leckie
    British Columbia Canada
    February 21, 12:27 am

    Can’t agree with the comments that this was a well researched article. It wasn’t and the conclusion;” Gold mining might be considered sustainable” is laughable except that the effects of gold mining worldwide are so horrific. Mr Stone, back of the journalism class for comments like these, “federal environmental regulators require it be filtered to be cleaner than mountain spring water before it is released into streams” Really? Try Barrick Gold, Bald Mountain, Atlanta…. Here’s the only sentence that rings true, “seeing how the gold on your ring or watch actually materializes gives a more accurate picture of its true cost.” Indeed. Just one little factoid for your next article:
    Earthworks / Oxfam America estimates to produce a single gold wedding band generates 20 tons of mine waste. Though gold is highly recyclable, sadly less than 25% of global demand is being met by recycled sources.

  2. Richard, Mariko and Daniel Garwood
    Auburn, CA
    August 29, 2013, 5:37 am

    Thank you, Dan Stone and National Geographic for drawing attention to the subject of mining. Well done!
    Some of the following comments need redress.
    As nimers, we maintain and protect the public lands in which we are entrusted by the USDI, BLM and local authorities while trying to contribute to the U.S. economy. It is truly a spiritual experience … to co-exist with government, wildlife and to touch Mother Earth.
    This a way of life few will ever comprehend.

  3. American Hard Assets
    Frisco Texas
    August 16, 2013, 3:34 pm

    Gold and miners are two most related entities. But as of today that gold surged so high, miners should be worried about. With the good condition of the economy and the market, real gold mining will be sustainable.

  4. Charles V. Palmer
    St. Louis
    March 2, 2013, 1:08 pm

    Shasta Gold Corp. could be going public soon folks!!!

  5. Ingo Heider
    Schweiz
    March 2, 2013, 12:09 pm

    AU gold doré bullion

    Good Days

    My name is Ingo Heider and are in search for AU gold doré bullion for our melt in Switzerland, Dubai and Miami.
    We would take a lot of 500 kg a week is possible with a LMBA Fixing of 6%. One question I have, you also have Skype where we can talk again? If so, my Skype name is: ingo.heider2

    Have a nice weekend
    Mr. Heider Ingo

  6. Todd
    Venice, Ca
    February 28, 2013, 5:24 pm

    Gold is used extensively in electronic and medical industry.

  7. Camel
    February 5, 2013, 9:58 pm

    The mining process is still enough to make any environmentalist cringe. Yet while walking the dark tunnels, it was worth thinking about the comparative impact. Gold mining doesn’t blast away mountains, like coal, nor risk massive spills, like oil.

    “:It’s a unique balance mostly based on desire, not need.”

    Right now, we need oil and coal to fuel our existing plants. Do we need gold? If you’re talking about comparative impacts, it doesn’t make sense for you to favor the environmental damage which results from mining gold whose demand stems from greed over mining materials which are currently essential for electricity and fuel.

  8. Karen Westmont
    Oakland CA
    January 28, 2013, 5:50 pm

    Think they do blast up whole hills for gold in Montana and thereabouts

  9. Elizabeth Ames
    redding
    December 16, 2012, 10:10 pm

    Kudos to you all up there! What a great opportunity to have National Geographic showcase the mine! Wishing you every success!

  10. Maggie McGrath
    Redding, CA
    December 7, 2012, 7:12 pm

    Fantastic video and information! It’s really neat National Geographic chose to do a video on this subject and in the heart of Northern California!

  11. Laurie Dowell
    Tyler, TX
    December 7, 2012, 2:15 pm

    Fascinating story, pics, and video. Something I had no idea was out there. I love National Geographic. Lots of GOOD news and interesting stories. And, of course, the PHOTOS!

    These particular photos were by my cousin! Great job, Spencer!

  12. kady
    google
    December 7, 2012, 10:32 am

    kewl vidio