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Dirty gold? Jewelers urge miners to clean up

Lobbied by environmentalists, jewelers are putting pressure on the U.S. mining industry to minimize pollution.
Idaho's Clark Fork River is seen here flowing towards Lake Pend Oreille near the Idaho-Montana border. Tiffany & Co. is lobbying to block a nearby mine project, citing concerns it would pollute the river.Jason Hunt / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Those gleaming necklaces, rings and watches in the jewelry case may cost a lot more than you think, environmentalists say.

In a new public relations campaign, environmentalists are scolding jewelers for the damage caused by mining for gold, silver and other precious metals, and are putting pressure on jewelry retailers to reject minerals from big polluters.

One gold ring, conservationists say, generates 20 tons of mine waste. This year, they passed out Valentine’s Day cards reading, “Don’t tarnish your love with dirty gold” in front of jewelry stores in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

The campaign caught the attention of Tiffany & Co., which took out a recent ad in The Washington Post that said a proposed mine under the Cabinet Mountains wilderness of Montana is a poor way to fill its jewelry cabinets on Fifth Avenue.

“Given the impact of mining for gold, silver and platinum, they are a company who cared about how they were viewed and what their customers think,” said Steve D’Esposito, president of Earthworks, the environmental group leading the campaign.

The ad, signed by Tiffany chairman and chief executive Michael Kowalski, surprised leaders in the mining industry.

“I was stunned that a person of Mr. Kowalski’s stature and obvious business acumen would write a letter like that,” said Laura Skaer, head of the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane.

Jewelers push for 'responsible mining'
The jewelry industry has already started the process of guaranteeing that its raw materials came only from socially and environmentally friendly mining companies, according to Jewelers of America, an industry group.

For several years, the group has been pushing a policy of supporting “responsible mining of minerals and metals,” said Fred Michmershuizen, director of marketing for the New York-based group.

Jewelers of America played a leading role in reducing the sale of so-called blood diamonds that help fund wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, Congo and Liberia. Last year, 45 countries signed on to an agreement requiring every diamond to be accompanied by a certificate of origin.

It is not the only industry where retailers are pressuring suppliers to be more environmentally friendly.

Last year, McDonald’s responded to concerns about antibiotics in livestock by telling its suppliers to phase out the use of the growth-promoting drugs. Kraft Foods, Starbucks Coffee and Sara Lee have all agreed to sell “fair-trade” coffee, which is intended to return more profits to growers and protect the environment.

Now Earthworks and a similar group, Oxfam America, have turned their sights on what they call the dirtiest industry in the United States — gold mining.

The U.S. gold jewelry market is worth about $16 billion annually, but mining is the top toxic polluter in the United States, responsible for 96 percent of arsenic emissions and 76 percent of lead emissions, according to a report the groups released in February.

Miners: 'Outdated and incorrect' data
The National Mining Association in Washington, D.C., has a different take.

“The U.S. gold mining industry is the world’s most advanced, using modern technology and stringent environmental safeguards,” NMA President Jack Gerard said. “Scare tactics, outdated and incorrect information should not be used to falsely characterize the fine efforts of these hardworking and knowledgeable men and women.”

Skaer said conservationists are overstating their case by loosely defining what constitutes “waste” at gold mines.

“The point they make about moving a lot of rock to get gold is true,” Skaer said. “But a lot of the waste is just rock again, a whole bunch of ordinary rock and naturally occurring minerals.”

The Dirty Metals campaign got a burst of publicity on March 24 from the ad in The Post, in which Tiffany called on the federal government to block construction of a silver and copper mine near the Montana-Idaho line.

The Rock Creek Mine, owned by a Spokane company, would discharge millions of gallons of wastewater per day into the Clark Fork River and subsequently into Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille. The mine would require boring three miles under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area near the Montana-Idaho border.

Better here than Third World?
Forest Service officials approved the mine last year, but environmental groups have sued to stop it.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said the Tiffany letter was filled with errors and misconceptions. Rey contended the proposed mine would follow strict controls to protect wildlife and waterways.

Critics also should consider that the alternative to mining for precious metals in the United States is mining in undeveloped countries that lack environmental protections, Rey said. He added: “I don’t think that’s what Tiffany wants.”