Gold (chemical symbol Au and atomic number 79) is a shiny, dense, soft, ductile and malleable metal. In its pure state, gold is bright yellow in color with a luster considered traditionally and to date as attractive. It is an element of group 11of the periodic table under the transitional metals. Gold is among the least reactive chemical elements and does not oxidize in water or air. It therefore occurs as a free element in most cases in forms of grains or nuggets in rocks, in alluvial deposits, and in veins. Gold also occurs, though rarely, as gold compound e.g. with tellurium. Individual acids do not act on gold; however, it dissolves in nitro-hydrochloric acid, also called aqua regia. Alkaline solutions such as those of cyanide are used in mining gold since gold dissolves in them. Amalgam alloys are formed when gold dissolves in mercury.
Gold is a name associated with prestige and value. Its value and prestige, especially in jewelry and arts in general, has made it a highly recognized and sought-after metal from time immemorial. Monetary policies have been based on gold standards throughout the history of human life. It is also linked to a variety of idols and symbols. Gold is mostly used in jewelry which consumes an average of 50%, investments which consumes 40%, and only 10% used in industry. Other than the symbolic and monetary functions, gold is used in other fields such as in electronics and dentistry.
Globally, the top gold producers are China, Australia, USA, South Africa, Russia, Peru, and Indonesia.
In 2010, China was the top producer of gold, with a total of 345 tonnes. Gold production is more concentrated in the eastern provinces of China such as Shandong, Fujian, Liaoning, and Henan. However, the western provinces like Yunnan and Guizhou have also seen an increase in their recent gold production. Substantial quantities of gold comes from Tanjianshan, Jinfeng (Carlin-type), and White Mountain, and as by-products of the copper mining.
Australia was the world’s second largest producer of gold, with a total of 255 tonnes in 2010. It is mostly produced in Western Australia State, the New South Wales, the Queensland, the Northern Territory, the South Australia, the Tasmania and the Victoria, respectively, with most gold coming from open pit mining. The leading mines are the Super Pit (Western Australia) at Kalgoorlie, the Telfer (Pilbara region), St Ives, Boddington, Agnew, Sunrise Dam (Yilgarn Craton), Cadia-Ridgeway (New South Wales) and Tanami (Northern Territory). Others include Higginsville, Olympic Dam, Frog’s Leg, Coolgardie, Paddington, Prominent Hill, Wattle Dam, Fosterville and Stawell.
USA was the world’s third producer of gold in 2010 with a total of 230 tonnes. The states where gold is produced include Nevada which is the leading producer, Alaska, Colorado, and Utah. Others include Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Washington, California, South Dakota and New Mexico.
Gold mine operations have adverse effects on the landscape and have enormous environmental problems. The problems include the cyanide spills and the contamination of both the surface water and the groundwater resulting from the acidic mine drainage.
Massive hydraulic mining causes disruption to the beauty of the landscape. Hills are flattened and mountainsides gouged out by the effects of high-powered hoses as in the case of California Gold Rush in Sierra Nevada region (Kiester 1999). Hydraulic mining also uses large volumes of water which requires rerouting of streams (Butterman 2005). After blasting the mining area, large quantities of water flows freely resulting in mudslides and floods (Kiester 1999). This not only affects the wildlife’s natural habitats, but also the crop fields resulting in depletion of the agricultural resources (Hill 1999).
Chemical waste is another destructive effect of gold mines. For the freeing of gold from quartz veins, mercury and arsenic - which are corrosive agents – are normally used (Hill 1999). These chemicals normally run into soil and water sources if not handled carefully, contaminating these resources and proving harmful to both vegetation and wildlife (Butterman 2005). In most cases, mining results in the destruction of the aesthetic beauty of the landscape, clearing of forests and displacement of both people and wildlife.
Gold mining is highly labor intensive. The mining processes include Placer mining, hydraulic mining, and lode mining. Placer mining is where the force of gravity and the density of gold are used to separate the gold particles from other sedimentary deposits. It uses simple tools like gold pans; however, more sophisticated tools and techniques have been developed. Hydraulic mining, though simple in principle, requires more sophisticated tools and techniques. Lode mining requires more excavation and digging than both hydraulic and placer mining. Explosives and extensive underground drillings are required so that lodes are reached (Butterman 2005).
Gold mining is an economically and agriculturally glorious. However, with the economic prosperity associated with it and the expansion of the population, the environment is highly endangered. The lack of regulation, responsibility, and organization is a major cause of environmental unfriendliness. The glory of gold blinds as the prospectors destroys the natural treasures of the landscape. The difficulties in extracting the lode gold results into the use of dangerous mining practices. Chemical amalgamation is preformed with little monitoring of the mercury and arsenic. Leeching of chemicals results into tragic environmental consequences.
The figure below shows the gold price per troy ounce in USD.
Butterman, W.C. and Earle B. Amey III. “Mineral Commodity Profiles- Gold.” United States Geological Survey. 2005.
Hill, Mary. Geology of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press: Berkley, 2006.
Hill, Mary. Gold: The California Story. University of California Press: Berkley, 1999.
Kiester Jr., Edwin. “Turning Water to Gold.” Smithsonian. Volume 30, Issue 5, Page 18, August 1999.