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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Mining Chemical Separation (p. 120)

From chapter "Mining"

Once miners have dug ore from the ground they extract from it the gold, platinum, silver, lead, coal, or whatever else they want to sell. Frequently, and it gets ever more frequent with each passing year, this extraction (or “milling” uses toxic or otherwise harmful chemicals: in other words, the valued minerals are no longer simply separated mechanically, but are separated through processes often involving chemicals). For example, because these days gold remaining in its native state typically occurs at concentrations of less than a third of an ounce per ton— meaning mining corporations dig up and later dump three tons of rock and soil for every ounce of gold—it’s not economically feasible to mechanically separate gold from ore. Instead, the gold is dissolved into a liquid, adsorbed from this liquid onto activated carbon, and then washed away from the carbon using solvents. Because gold isn’t soluble in water, it requires both a complexant and an oxidant in order to dissolve. Many of the chemicals used in these extraction processes are toxic or otherwise harm the land and water, and of course also harm those who require land or water in order to live. In other words, they harm all of us.


[When] we’re talking about miners, we’re not talking about Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston protecting their hard-earned treasure by fighting off “cops” who have no stinking badges (nor, and this is more to the point, are we talking about miners who say, and more importantly actualize, the understanding that they’ve “wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us”).Instead, we’re talking about huge transnational mining corporations that often bribe local, regional, or national officials, politicians, dictators—whoever has the power to sign pieces of paper that legalize their activities—to give them permits to dig up entire mountains. They often buy off, bully, beat, capture, or kill those who oppose them; or they get their money’s worth from the local, regional, national officials, politicians, or dictators who send in the military or police (with stinking badges) to bully, beat, capture, or kill those who oppose their mines. In the United States and Canada the preferred tactic is to buy off the opposition (except especially in the case of those of the indigenous who cannot be bought off), whereas in the colonies it’s often more cost-effective for these transnational corporations—and the military and police who serve them—to skip directly to the latter three options: in both the short and long-run, bullets are cheaper for them than bread, and bullets are certainly (fiscally) cheaper for them than not digging up the earth.

Next, when these huge corporations mine and mill ore, these processes are not quite so spick and span as the technical descriptions make them seem. First, picture a living mountain, its base covered in trees, its top above the tree line. Now, picture this mountain flattened. Picture its guts removed. Picture pits so large that, as one pamphlet puts it, “they could swallow cities.”Picture heaps of extracted ore several hundred feet high and several times larger than a football field. Now, picture spraying a solution containing cyanide over those heaps. Picture the cyanide trickling down, chemically bonding with microscopic bits of gold. Picture this solution draining to a huge rubber blanket beneath this heap. Picture this blanket channeling the cyanide solution toward a large holding pond, where the gold is stripped away, and as much of the cyanide as possible is recovered to be reused.

Picture birds landing in this pond. Picture birds dying. Picture every living being who comes in contact with this pond dying.

Picture these heaps being dumped on plains. Picture them being dumped in valleys. Picture them filling these valleys, until the valleys no longer exist. Picture these heaps being dumped anywhere these transnational mining corporations have permits to dump them. Picture governments handing out these permits to transnational corporations. Picture transnational corporations handing money to local, regional, or national officials, politicians, dictators—whoever has the power to sign pieces of paper that legalize these activities. Picture streams below turning to sulfuric acid. Picture all creatures dying. Picture the bottoms of these streams coated with Yellow Boy, and picture the water itself a sickly orange. Picture those humans who live by these streams dying. Picture paid representatives of these mines telling us that these processes are safe. Picture newspapers repeating these claims. Picture paid local, regional, or national officials, politicians, dictators repeating these claims as well. Picture paid local, regional, or national officials, politicians, dictators passing laws making it illegal or impossible (at least through “proper channels”) to effectively stop the gutting of these mountains, the poisoning of these streams, the poisoning of this water, this land, this air, these nonhumans, these humans. Picture paid local, regional, or national officials, politicians, dictators buying off some of those who resist, and bullying, beating, capturing, or killing the rest. Picture the owners and CEOs of these corporations living nowhere near the tailings piles or the acidic orange streams.

Picture this cycle being repeated.

Picture the planet being killed.