Featured stories in this issue...
2005 in Review: Dark Clouds on the Technology Horizon
For nanotechnology, the year 2005 started pretty well, but as the
months slipped by, bad news clouded the future for this most-powerful
technology. Now the industry itself is asking to be "regulated" --
perhaps because they know how well "regulation" has served the
chemical and nuclear industries.
In Canada, Chippewa Girls Now Outnumber Boys by Far
Among the Chippewa people in Canada, two girls are born for every
boy -- a completely unnatural ratio. Are hormone-disrupting chemicals
A Huge Fight Against the Chemical Industry Needs You to Weigh in
A huge fight is going on in Washington state, where the legislature
is considering a bill to ban one of the worst chemicals around -- a
flame retardent known as 'deca.' The chemical industry is pouring the
bucks into this fight, so we need to show people-power in response.
You can help, and it'll just take a minute of your time.
The Cost of Gold -- 30 Tons an Ounce
During the holiday season, the glitter of gold is everywhere -- a
reminder of our stupendous wealth, but also a reminder of something
else. We are now mining ores that contain only one part per million of
gold, so every ounce of the precious metal leaves behind 30 tons of
broken rock, ruined soil, and poisonous waste. And, as always, the
least-fortunate pay the costs while the most-fortunate get the gold.
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News, Dec. 22, 2005
2005 IN REVIEW: DARK CLOUDS ON THE TECHNOLOGY HORIZON
Nanotech problems pile up and the industry asks to be regulated
By Peter Montague
The year 2005 began brightly enough for U.S. evangelists of
nanotechnology -- the science and engineering of things so small they
are measured in billionths of a meter and are invisible even under a
microscope. When substances are broken into nano-sized particles,
their properties change dramatically -- metals may become transparent,
inert substances may suddenly become chemically reactive, and
dielectrics may begin to conduct electricity. The nano world turns
ordinary reality topsy turvy -- all very mysterious and marvellous,
For at least 10 years the U.S. has been banking on nanotechnology to
fuel a new industrial revolution, pump up flagging rates of economic
growth and make boatloads of money for already-wealthy investors, with
perhaps some benefits trickling down to ordinary earthlings. Indeed,
many people have pinned their hopes for the future of the U.S. economy
on nanotech. Of course, some nano evangelists go even further. In a
report sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the
Department of Commerce, evangelists who are promoting this technology
say it is "essential to the future of humanity" because it holds the
promise of "world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a
higher level of compassion and accomplishment." This is
technological evangelism at its snake oil best.
Nanotech has in fact been expanding at breakneck speed. The U.S. is
investing more money, securing more patents (more than 1000 per year),
and publishing more scientific papers on nanotechnology than
competitors in any other country. The National Science Foundation
estimates that by 2015 (a short 10 years from now) nanotech will be a
$1 trillion business employing perhaps 2 million workers. And that's
just the beginning, they hope.
However, in March the President's Council of Advisors on Science and
Technology issued a lengthy report on nanotech that raised serious
safety questions. The President's Council made the point repeatedly
that nanotech is already finding its way into products (sun screen,
baby lotion, wrinkle-free trousers, tennis rackets, computer hard
drives, and so on) -- but there has been almost no safety research and
nanotechnology is entirely unregulated. The toxicity studies now under
way are "a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done,"
according to John H. Marburger III, science advisor to President
The federal government is pumping at least $1 billion per year of
taxpayer funds into nano research and development (4% of it into
safety studies), and the private sector worldwide is putting up
another $8 billion per year. In addition, individual states are
putting up an estimated $400 million per year, as they vie with each
other to create the next "silicon valley" -- hoping to create jobs to
replace the jobs that have been moved to China by the Wal-Martization
of the economy.
In the rush to build this new industry, nanotechnology engineers have
so far neglected to ask, What happens when nano products are discarded
and become nanowaste? (Here we are seeing an exact replay of the
David Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
thinks the "waste" question deserves an answer: "Who knows what
happens when you grind this stuff up, incinerate it or it goes into a
landfill? These products may be safe in the tennis racket, but all
products become obsolete at some point -- if nothing else because they
go out of fashion. Those teal-colored nanopants are going to be out of
style next year," he said, only half-joking. "Then what?" Good
question. (The nuclear industry -- 65 years into the enterprise --
still has no answer.)
By year's end, even more serious questions had arisen about nanotech.
One of the most popular nano materials is a molecule composed of 60
carbon atoms, which attach themselves together in the shape of a
soccer ball. They are called fullerenes, or bucky balls, after the
famous inventor Buckminster Fuller. Bucky balls have a huge surface
area compared to their volume, so they are highly reactive in a
chemical sense -- they readily glom onto almost anything nearby.
Scientists have been hoping that bucky balls could be coated with
medicines and injected into sick people to deliver specific remedies
to specific parts of the body. Alternatively, EPA [U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency] has been hoping bucky balls could be released into
the environment to detoxify some of the billions of tons of toxic
wastes left over from the previous industrial revolution (which was
based on nuclear and petrochemical evangelism).
Last year, nano researchers showed that bucky balls in water could
migrate into the brains of fish. In December, researchers at
Vanderbilt University announced that bucky balls are soluble in
water and will enter cells and probably bind with DNA -- the doubly-
coiled molecule that transmits life from one generation to the next.
Two engineers at Vanderbilt concluded that bucky balls "bind to the
spirals in DNA molecules in an aqueous environment, causing the DNA to
deform, potentially interfering with its biological functions and
possibly causing long-term negative side effects in people and other
living organisms." Uh, oh.
After this announcement, a chorus of complaints arose, urging safety
studies of nano materials, in preparation for "regulating" the
industry. No one in the chorus mentioned that the U.S. has never been
able to effectively regulate the nuclear or petrochemical industries
-- the vast majority of chemicals in commercial use today have never
been safety-tested and 1800 new compounds enter commercial channels
each year almost entirely untested for effects on human health and the
environment. As a practical matter, the chemical industry is
unregulated, and will remain so. As for the nuclear industry, its
dangerous detritus has been spread all over the planet -- radioactive
junk piles of astonishing proportions, under sea, in the artic, in
the northwestern and southwestern deserts of the U.S. Is there any
reason to believe that the nanotech industry will be different?
Despite this, a substantial sector of the environmental movement is
committed to the "regulatory approach" and they have teams of
attorneys and scientists ready to spend tens of millions of dollars
trying to impose largely-ineffective regulations on the nascent nano
industry. It's a kind of symbiotic dance between the industry and the
enviros, each helping the other pretend to be scientific and
In June Environmental Defense (formerly Environmental Defense Fund,
aka ED) joined with the American Chemistry Council (formerly the
Chemical Manufacturers' Association, aka ACC) in making a joint
proposal, "which calls for international efforts to standardize
testing and risk assessment protocols for nanotechnology development,
and the drafting of measures to protect human health and the
environment while regulators, industry and the scientific community
continue to research and develop the technology." In other words,
the chemical industry (which is the nanotech industry) is begging to
be regulated and is proposing the terms of regulation -- we'll deploy
the technology as fast as we can and you regulators will please
develop "regulations" and "risk assessments" after the fact.
I suppose a silly sweetheart deal like this allows ED to look like
it's still "a player," the ACC gets to look "reasonable," nothing new
is required of anyone, and an unsuspecting public gains the reassuring
-- though entirely false -- impression that something worthwhile is
being done to protect their health and well being.
Even if the ED-ACC proposal produces its intended result, the best we
can expect is a replay of the petrochemical century -- except that
nanotechnology is far more powerful than anything that every came out
of a 20th-century chemical lab. The failure to regulate the chemical
industry, if replayed by the nanotech industry, will definitely not be
But we must ask ourselves, why would this industry ask to be
So far, the U.S. regulatory system has been even more lenient on
nanotech than it has been on petrochemicals. So far U.S. regulators
have declared that a nanoparticle of titanium or carbon is no
different from a bulk quantity of titanium or carbon, and so no
regulation is needed. Think about that for a minute. If there really
were no difference between bulk quantities of a substance and the same
substance in nano-sized particles, there would be no advantages to
nano particles and therefore no nanotech industry. This U.S.
regulatory foolosophy is clearly aimed at letting this new industry
develop as rapidly as it can, without regard for consequences.
Government regulators are helping the nano industry get products to
market, create jobs, and grow large before anyone notices. After the
industry grows large, then effective regulation will be impossible
because jobs would be jeopardized, thus pitting working people against
public health specialists (who would otherwise be natural allies).
This "divide and conquer" strategy worked like magic with leaded
gasoline, asbestos, and the nuclear industry (among many others), so
there's no reason to think it will fail with nanotech.
However, even the evangalists of nanotech recognize there's wild card
in this approach: the public.
Without safety testing of nano products, the nanotech industry "is
setting itself up for the same kind of consumer backlash that has
haunted genetically modified foods," Science magazine observed in
December. No doubt this is what's driving the ED-ACC proposal to
develop "regulations" -- aiming to create the appearance that this
industry is being hemmed in by "command and control regulation"
(sounds strict and effective, doesn't it?) may keep the public dozing,
at least for a time.
In addition to providing false but convincing reassurance to a worried
public, "regulations" also serve two other purposes:
(1) When people begin to realize they've been poisoned by
nanoparticles, the poisoners will say, "The government approved this,
so I'm not liable." In other words, the regulatory system legalizes
harm and provides industry an "out" when the stuff hits the fan. This
is precisely the approach that won a $10 billion law suit for Altria
Group (Philip Morris) last week in Illinois. People harmed by
tobacco products said Philip Morris had misled them by selling killer-
cigarettes under the safe-sounding name, "Light." Philip Morris argued
that government had approved the label so the deadly consequences of
being snookered by the false label were the government's fault, not
the cigarette maker's. The Illinois Supreme Court bought it. So
regulation -- though it may be totally ineffective at protecting the
public -- can protect the poisoners very well.
(2) The second reason why the ACC might want regulation is that it
gives big firms a powerful advantage over their smaller competitors.
Big firms may never say so in public, but they love complicated
regulations -- the more complicated the better. They can afford to
hire a staff of lawers and engineers -- "compliance specialists" --
who do nothing but read the regulations and fill out the burdensome
paperwork, bellyaching all the way to the bank. Small firms cannot
necessarily afford to hire "complianace specialists" so they are
ensnared by the rules, tripped up, and waylaid. They spend a greater
proportion of their available funds complying, compared to the big
firms, which reduces their ability to compete.
In sum, the fact that the regulatory system doesn't protect the public
is really beside the point -- the system was designed to serve other
purposes. Big industrial firms need regulations to (a) to provide the
public a false sense of security and lull them to sleep; (b) shift
blame onto regulators when the public objects to being poisoned; and
(c) put small firms at a competitive disadvantage. The enviro partners
of the big polluters play right into this industrial strategy with
eyes wide shut.
Safety testing and subsequent "risk assessments" to "prove safety"
provide cover for polluters so that contamination of the planet with
exotic materials can proceed unimpeded. We examined how this works, in
some detail, in Rachel's #831. Initially, contamination of the
planet was an unintended consequence of the risk-based regulatory
system, but now everyone knows how it works, so continuing to rely on
this failed regulatory approach can no longer be justified as
accidental or unintended. We now know exactly what we're doing. We're
making short-term profits at the expense of everyone else who inhabits
the planet, including our children and grandchildren. The "regulatory
system" makes this game possible.
It's not hard to figure out why industrial polluters do these things
-- they have no choice. They have one -- and only one -- legal option:
they must return a modest profit to investors, year after year. They
are not permitted by law to do anything else, so their behavior is
predictable. Their task is to shove as many of their costs onto the
public as they possbly can and still remain within the bounds of the
But the big enviro groups are set up not-for-profit, so they are not
bound by any fiduciary duty to investors. Therefore they must have
other motives. As I say, this nanotech business is all very mysterious
and marvellous, really.
 Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors, Converging
Technologies for Improving Human Performance (Washington, D.C.:
National Science Foundation, June, 2002.
 Robert F. Service, "Calls Rise for More Research on Toxicology of
Nanomaterials," Science Vol. 310, No. 5754 (Dec. 9, 2005), pg. 1609.
 Rick Weiss, "Nanotech is Booming Biggest in U.S., Report Says,"
Washington Post Mar. 29, 2005.
 States with the greatest nanotech potential are California,
Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Maryland, New York,
Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, with Colorado, New Jersey, North
Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington state close behind, according
to Small Times magazine March 12, 2003. Available at
 Keay Davidson, "The promise and perils of the nanotech
revolution," San Francisco Chronicle July 26, 2004.
 "Vanderbilt U. Engineers Question Safety of Nano-Buckyballs," Dec.
5, 2005. Press release from Vanderbilt University.
 Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu, and Katherine Yih, Nuclear Wastelands;
A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its health and
Environmental Effects (Cambridge, Mas.: MIT Press, 1995). This 660-
page compendium does not include information about the medical and
industrial uses of radioactive substances, which have created their
own universe of expensive, long-lived problems. And of course the
problem of rogue nuclear weapons falling into the hands of unstable
governments -- Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and perhaps others --
poses yet another universe of dangers of incalculable proportion.
 "Industry, Environmentalists Offer Plan for Possible Nanotech
Rules," Inside OSHA June 27, 2005.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dec. 17, 2005
POLLUTION ON CANADA RESERVATION IS PROBED
By Matt Crenson, AP National Writer
AAMJIWNAANG FIRST NATION, Canada -- Growing up with smokestacks on the
horizon, Ada Lockridge never thought much about the pollution that
came out of them.
She never worried about the oil slicks in Talfourd Creek, the acrid
odors that wafted in on the shifting winds or even the air-raid siren
behind her house whose shrill wail meant "go inside and shut the
Now Lockridge worries all the time.
A budding environmental activist, she recently made a simple but
shocking discovery: There are two girls born in her small community
for every boy. A sex ratio so out of whack, say scientific experts who
helped her reveal the imbalance, almost certainly indicates serious
environmental contamination by one or more harmful chemicals.
The question: Which ones? And another, even more pressing question:
What else are these pollutants doing to the 850 members of this
Lockridge and her neighbors live just across the U.S.-Canada border
from Port Huron, Mich., on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reserve. For
nearly half a century, their land has been almost completely
surrounded by Canada's largest concentration of petrochemical
Much of their original reserve, founded in 1827, was sold out from
under them via questionable land deals in the 1960s. It is now
occupied by pipelines, factories and row upon row of petroleum storage
The area is so dominated by the industry that it is referred to on
maps and in local parlance as "Chemical Valley."
About two years ago, Suncor Energy -- which already operates a
refinery and petrochemical plant next to the Aamjiwnaang reserve --
proposed adding another factory to the mix, an ethanol plant to be
built on one of the few undeveloped parcels adjoining the community's
Lockridge and other members of the band joined to oppose the plant.
They asked biologist Michael Gilbertson to look at a binder full of
technical information about air, water and soil contamination on the
In a conference call, he reported that the data showed elevated levels
of dioxin, PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals including arsenic,
cadmium, lead and mercury.
Almost as an afterthought, he asked a question: Had anybody noticed a
difference in the number of girls and boys in the community?
At the other end of the line, the Aamjiwnaang and their allies were
"All of a sudden everybody in that room started talking," said
Margaret Keith, a staffer for the Occupational Health Clinic for
Ontario Workers, a public health agency.
Somebody pointed out that the reserve had fielded three girls'
baseball teams in a recent year and only one boys' team. Lockridge
thought about herself and her two sisters, with eight daughters among
them and only one son.
The question was not as offhand as it seemed. "I had been interested
in sex ratio as an indicator -- a very sensitive indicator of effects
going on as a result of exposure to chemicals," Gilbertson said in a
Gilbertson explained that certain pollutants, including many found on
the Aamjiwnaang reserve, could interfere with the sex ratio of
newborns in a population. Heavy metals have been shown to affect sex
ratio by causing the miscarriage of male fetuses. Other pollutants
known as endocrine disrupters -- including dioxin and PCBs -- can
wreak all sorts of havoc by interfering with the hormones that
determine whether a couple will have a boy or a girl.
If some pollutant was skewing the distribution of girls and boys in
her family and her community, Ada Lockridge thought, what else could
it be doing?
Statistics indicate that one in four Aamjiwnaang children has
behavioral or learning disabilities, and that they suffer from asthma
at nearly three times the national rate. Four of 10 women on the
reserve have had at least one miscarriage or stillbirth.
"I was throwing up thinking about what was in me," said Lockridge, who
is 42. "I cried. And then I got angry."
She got a copy of the band membership list, and tallied the number of
boys and girls born in each year since 1984. Sure enough, the
percentage of boys started dropping below 50 percent around 1993. It
is now approaching 30 percent, with no sign of leveling off.
The finding was significant enough to warrant a paper in Environmental
Health Perspectives, a well-regarded scientific journal. Lockridge,
who has worked as a home health aide and carpenter's assistant, was
listed as an author.
On a recent autumn day, Lockridge stood in the Aamjiwnaang band's
cemetery. The burial ground occupies a gently sloping patch of ground
sandwiched between a petroleum storage tank farm and a low cinder-
block building with half a dozen pipelines running through it.
It is hardly a place where anyone could rest in peace. The building
emits a constant, deafening roar that sounds like a wood-chipper
buzzing through logs one after the next. It is so loud that funeral
ceremonies have to be shouted.
One of the oldest headstones in the cemetery belongs to Lockridge's
great-grandfather, who died at least 50 years before Suncor Energy
erected a giant flare tower not 100 yards away.
Lockridge was talking about how security guards watch and occasionally
film her as she pulls weeds around her family's plots. Suddenly she
"Okay," she said. "You getting that smell right now?"
Traveling around the 3,250-acre Aamjiwnaang reserve is a stimulating
olfactory experience. There are tangy smells, sweet smells and acrid
odors that sting the nose. There is the tarry scent of unrefined
petroleum, and the rotten-eggs stench of sulfur.
There's also a "fart" smell, Lockridge said, a "stink-feet" smell and
something that "smells like what the dentist puts on a Q-Tip before he
gives you the needle."
Whenever she detects a distinctive odor somewhere on the reserve, she
makes a note of it and records it on a calendar at home.
Lockridge's discovery of a sudden shift in sex ratio suggests a new
pollutant came into the Aamjiwnaang's environment during the early
1990s. And the fact that the decrease is continuing suggests that
whatever that pollutant is, it is still around.
So far, nobody recalls anything new coming on the scene during the
early '90s. And the levels of likely suspects such as PCBs and mercury
have actually decreased in the past decade.
The sex ratio of newborn babies is normally within a hair's breadth of
50-50, with slightly more boys born than girls. There are very few
documented cases of an imbalance as extreme as the one of the
During the late 1950s, a severe outbreak of mercury poisoning in
Minamata, Japan, caused a decrease in the percentage of male births.
Mercury and other heavy metals cause the preferential miscarriage of
male fetuses simply because their brains are more vulnerable during
development compared to those of females.
Mercury is unlikely to be causing the shortage of boys on the
Aamjiwnaang reserve, however. Though levels of the metal are elevated
on the reserve, the Aamjiwnaang are exposed to much less mercury today
than they were 50 years ago. Back then, poor band members would go to
open toxic waste dumps and extract mercury from the soil by adding
water to it, then sell the metal on the black market.
The Aamjiwnaang and their scientific advisers believe it is more
likely that endocrine disrupters are to blame. Dozens of synthetic
organic chemicals can interfere with natural hormones by either
interfering with or amplifying their effects. Because hormones are so
important to the development and healthy performance of the body's
organs, endocrine disrupters have the potential to cause a wide range
of effects, from damage to the brain and sex organs in utero to
decreased sperm production and immune suppression in adults. It is
even arguable that they could influence sexual behavior and violence.
In her book "Our Stolen Future," biologist Theo Colborne worries that
endocrine disrupters may be responsible for "physical, mental and
behavioral disruption in humans that could affect fertility, learning
ability, aggression and conceivably even parenting and mating
Some researchers have suggested that endocrine disrupters may be
responsible for numerous alarming trends -- rising rates of testicular
and breast cancer, a higher frequency of reproductive tract
abnormalities, declining sperm counts and increases in learning
disabilities among them.
In 1976, a dioxin release at a factory in Seveso, Italy, sickened at
least 2,000 people. Years later, scientists found that men who were
exposed to the highest dioxin levels were more likely to have
daughters than sons. Among men who were younger than 19 years old at
the time of the accident, the ratio was the same as it is today on the
Aamjiwnaang reserve -- two-to-one.
At lower doses, the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals are
subtle and have been harder to document.
"Not a lot is known, actually," said Marc Weisskopf, a research
associate at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In a 2003 study, he and several colleagues found that mothers who
consumed large amounts of PCB-contaminated fish caught in the Great
Lakes were more likely to have girls.
It is extremely difficult to say whether background doses of endocrine
disrupters are having any effect on the general population. Scientists
in many industrialized countries -- including the United States and
Canada -- have documented a subtle decline in the male-to-female ratio
since World War II. But it has been a matter of controversy whether
the decrease is due to industrial chemicals or lifestyle factors and
medical advances, which can also tinker with the sex ratio.
There is little doubt that endocrine-disrupting pollutants are
affecting the sexual development of wildlife right where the
Aamjiwnaang live. In Lake St. Clair, not 30 miles from their reserve,
fish are swimming around with both male and female gonads. The
condition, known as intersex, is caused when a young fish that is
genetically male is exposed to chemicals such as the fertilizer
atrazine, which causes female gonads to develop by acting like the
The phenomenon has been documented all over the southern Great Lakes -
not just in fish, but in birds and amphibians as well.
The Aamjiwnaang are getting increasingly worried and obsessed about
the pollution of their reserve. With every new baby, said Ron Plain, a
member of the Aamjiwnaang environment committee, "we have to worry
what's the matter with that child, five years from now, 10 years from
now, 20 years from now."
Some people have suggested that the whole band should simply pick up
and leave the reserve for a less contaminated place. But Plain wants
to stay and fight.
Petitions and demonstrations against the Suncor ethanol plant
eventually convinced the company to choose a location about 10 miles
south of the reserve for the new facility. A Suncor spokesman said
that community opposition was one of several factors that led to the
Now Plain wants to use the band's veto power over new pipelines
crossing the reserve as a bargaining chip: For example, in return for
allowing a right-of-way, the Aamjiwnaang would require establishment
of a fund to set up a network of air monitoring stations. The money
could also be used to clean up hazardous waste sites on the reserve,
or other environmental projects.
"The band doesn't have the money for that type of stuff," said Plain,
who runs his own medical supply company. "If we have a million dollars
we can hire some pretty good experts."
Alan Joseph is not sure he can wait.
He has five children -- a boy and four girls. All suffer from asthma;
the eldest girl has liver problems.
He used to catch crawfish in Talfourd Creek and fish in the St. Clair
River, less than a quarter mile from his house. Now, if he wants to go
fishing, he drives 25 miles up the shore of Lake Huron.
"I really want to move," he said.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Environmental Health Fund, Dec. 20, 2005
A HUGE FIGHT AGAINST THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY NEEDS YOU TO WEIGH IN
We have until December 30th to comment on the Washington State bill to
protect kids, adults and the environment from unnecessary toxic flame
retardants, especially the one known as "deca." The bill in
Washington is a bellwether for what we can do elsewhere.
The industry is weighing in from all over the country to prevent a
We need to weigh in from all over the country to support it.
SO PLEASE GO TO www.watoxics.org. The ACTION ALERT will be
prominently at the top of the page and there are quick steps for you
to weigh in. Feel free to mention that the eyes of the country are
upon Washington to see if they will lead with a protective measure for
our families and our environment.
To provide more detailed comments please see the note from Ivy below.
Thanks for taking the time to support this. Without progress in
Washington our efforts elsewhere are weaker.
Environmental Health Fund
FROM IVY SAGER-ROSENTHAL, WASHINGTON TOXICS COALITION
As many of you know, the Washington state Department of Ecology is
getting ready to finalize its recommendations on PBDEs. These
recommendations are critically important for our efforts to pass a
bill banning deca because legislators are looking to Ecology for
guidance. Ecology staff are getting lobbied hard by the bromine
industry and others. We need your help! It would be very helpful if
groups from outside the state could weigh in and support the
recommendation to ban deca.
The draft recommendations can be found here.
Please send your comments to Mike Gallagher, PBT Coordinator at the
Department of Ecology, by December 30th. His email is
Please feel free to contact me (email@example.com) or
Laurie Valeriano (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions
Thanks! -- Ivy
Environmental Health Advocate
Washington Toxics Coalition
4649 Sunnyside Ave. N. Suite 540E
Seattle, WA 98103
206-632-1545 ext. 122
Return to Table of Contents
From: New York Times, Oct. 24, 2005
THE COST OF GOLD -- 30 TONS AN OUNCE
Behind Gold's Glitter: Torn Lands and Pointed Questions
By Jane Perlez and Kirk Johnson
There has always been an element of madness to gold's allure.
For thousands of years, something in the eternally lustrous metal has
driven people to the outer edges of desire -- to have it and hoard it,
to kill or conquer for it, to possess it like a lover.
In the early 1500's, King Ferdinand of Spain laid down the priorities
as his conquistadors set out for the New World. "Get gold," he told
them, "Humanely if possible, but at all costs, get gold."
In that long and tortuous history, gold has now arrived at a new
moment of opportunity and peril.
The price of gold is higher than it has been in 17 years -- pushing
$500 an ounce. But much of the gold left to be mined is microscopic
and is being wrung from the earth at enormous environmental cost,
often in some of the poorest corners of the world.
And unlike past gold manias, from the time of the pharoahs to the
forty-niners, this one has little to do with girding empires,
economies or currencies. It is almost all about the soaring demand for
jewelry, which consumes 80 percent or more of the gold mined today.
The extravagance of the moment is provoking a storm among
environmental groups and communities near the mines, and forcing even
some at Tiffany & Company and the world's largest mining companies to
confront uncomfortable questions about the real costs of mining gold.
"The biggest challenge we face is the absence of a set of clearly
defined, broadly accepted standards for environmentally and socially
responsible mining," said Tiffany's chairman, Michael Kowalski. He
took out a full-page advertisement last year urging miners to make
"urgently needed" reforms.
Consider a ring. For that one ounce of gold, miners dig up and haul
away 30 tons of rock and sprinkle it with diluted cyanide, which
separates the gold from the rock. Before they are through, miners at
some of the largest mines move a half million tons of earth a day,
pile it in mounds that can rival the Great Pyramids, and drizzle the
ore with the poisonous solution for years.
The scars of open-pit mining on this scale endure.
A months-long examination by The New York Times, including tours of
gold mines in the American West, Latin America, Africa and Europe,
provided a rare look inside an insular industry with a troubled
environmental legacy and an uncertain future.
Some metal mines, including gold mines, have become the near-
equivalent of nuclear waste dumps that must be tended in perpetuity.
Hard-rock mining generates more toxic waste than any other industry in
the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The agency estimated last year that the cost of cleaning up metal
mines could reach $54 billion.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office chastised
the agency and said legal loopholes, corporate shells and weak federal
oversight had compounded the costs and increased the chances that
mining companies could walk away without paying for cleanups and pass
the bill to taxpayers.
"Mining problems weren't considered a very high priority" in past
decades, Thomas P. Dunne, the agency's acting assistant administrator
for solid waste and emergency response, said in an interview. "But
they are a concern now."
With the costs and scrutiny of mining on the rise in rich countries,
where the best ores have been depleted, 70 percent of gold is now
mined in developing countries like Guatemala and Ghana. It is there,
miners and critics agree, that the real battle over gold's future is
Gold companies say they are bringing good jobs, tighter environmental
rules and time-tested technologies to their new frontiers. With the
help of the World Bank, they have opened huge mines promising
development. Governments have welcomed the investment.
But environmental groups say companies are mining in ways that would
never be tolerated in wealthier nations, such as dumping tons of waste
into rivers, bays and oceans. People who live closest to the mines say
they see too few of mining's benefits and bear too much of its burden.
In Guatemala and Peru, people have mounted protests to push miners
out. Other communities are taking companies to court.
This month a Philippine province sued the world's fifth-largest gold
company, Canada-based Placer Dome, charging that it had ruined a
river, bay and coral reef by dumping enough waste to fill a convoy of
trucks that would circle the globe three times.
Placer Dome, which also runs three major mines in Nevada, answered by
saying that it had "contained the problem" and already spent $70
million in remediation and another $1.5 million in compensation.
Some in the industry have paused to consider whether it is worth the
cost -- to the environment, their bottom line or their reputations --
to mine gold, which generates more waste per ounce than any other
metal and yet has few industrial uses.
The world's biggest mining company, Australia-based BHP Billiton, sold
its profitable Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea in 2001 after having
destroyed more than 2,400 acres of rainforest. Upon leaving, the
company said the mine was "not compatible with our environmental
After tough lessons, other companies, like Newmont Mining, the world's
largest gold producer, are paying for more schools and housing, trying
harder to ease social problems around its mines.
"I don't think any of our members want to be associated with a bad
operation -- notwithstanding it would hurt their ability to open new
facilities," said Carol L. Raulston, spokeswoman for the National
Mining Association. "News goes around the world quickly now and there
is no place to hide."
Critics say corporate miners have been cloistered from scrutiny
because of their anonymity to consumers, unlike, say, oil companies,
which also extract resources but hang their name over the pump.
Last year the mine watchdog group Earthworks began a "No Dirty Gold"
campaign, marching protesters in front of fashionable Fifth Avenue
storefronts, trying to change gold mining by lobbying gold consumers.
"They just said to ask where the gold was coming from and whether it
caused social or environmental damage," said Michael E. Conroy, senior
lecturer and research scholar at the Yale University School of
Forestry and Environmental Studies. "The repercussions in the mining
media were huge -- some said it was all lies, but retailers began to
realize what their vulnerability was."
Mr. Kowalski, Tiffany's chairman, has tried to stay ahead of the
controversy. He has broken new ground by buying Tiffany's gold from a
mine in Utah that does not use cyanide.
But the largest sellers of gold are not luxury outlets like his, but
rather Wal-Mart stores, and even Mr. Kowalski, a trustee of the
Wildlife Conservation Society, hesitated to call any gold entirely
Asia's Insatiable Appetite
Amrita Raj, a 25-year-old bride, was shopping for her wedding
trousseau on a recent Saturday in New Delhi. There was a "wedding set"
to be bought that day, with its requisite gold necklace, matching
earrings and two sets of bangles.
For the sake of family honor, the new in-laws would have to receive
gold gifts as well -- a "light set" for the mother-in-law, plus a gold
ring or a watch for the bridegroom, and earrings for a sister-in-law.
"Without gold, it's not a wedding -- at least not for Indians," Ms.
For thousands of years, gold has lent itself to ceremony and
celebration. But now old ways have met new prosperity. The newly
moneyed consumers who line the malls of Shanghai and the bazaars of
Mumbai sent jewelry sales shooting to a record $38 billion this year,
according to the World Gold Council, the industry trade group.
Over the last year, sales surged 11 percent in China and 47 percent in
India, a country of a billion people whose seemingly insatiable
appetite for gold -- for jewelry, temples and dowries -- has
traditionally made it gold's largest consumer.
That kind of demand leads many in and out of the industry to argue
that gold's value is cultural and should not be questioned. The desire
to hoard gold is not limited to households in India or the Middle
The United States, the world's second-largest consumer of gold, is
also the world's largest holder of gold reserves. The government has
8,134 tons secured in vaults, about $122 billion worth. The Federal
Reserve and other major central banks renewed an agreement last year
to severely restrict sales from their reserves, offering, in effect, a
price support to gold.
That price is not simply a matter of supply and demand, but of market
psychology. Gold is bought by anxious investors when the dollar is
weak and the economy uncertain. That is a big reason for gold's high
For miners that price determines virtually everything -- where gold is
mined, how much is mined, and how tiny are the flecks worth going
"You can mine gold ore at a lower grade than any other metal," said
Mike Wireman, a mine specialist at the Denver office of the E.P.A.
"That means big open pits. But it must also be easy and cheap to be
profitable, and that means cyanide."
That kind of massive operation can be seen at Yanacocha, a sprawling
mine in northern Peru run by Newmont. In a region of pastures and
peasants, the rolling green hills have been carved into sandy-colored
mesas, looking more like the American West than the Andean highlands.
Mountains have been systematically blasted, carted off by groaning
trucks the size of houses and restacked into ziggurats of chunky ore.
These new man-made mountains are lined with irrigation hoses that
silently trickle millions of gallons of cyanide solution over the rock
for years. The cyanide dissolves the gold so it can be separated and
At sites like Yanacocha, one ounce of gold is sprinkled in 30 tons of
ore. But to get at that ore, many more tons of earth have to be moved,
then left as waste. At some mines in Nevada, 100 tons or more of earth
have to be excavated for a single ounce of gold, said Ann Maest, a
geochemist who consults on mining issues.
Mining companies say they are meeting a demand and that this kind of
gold mining, called cyanide heap leaching, is as good a use of the
land as any, or better.
Cyanide is not the only option. But it is considered the most cost-
effective way to retrieve microscopic bits of "invisible gold." Profit
margins are too thin, miners say, and the gold left in the world too
scarce to mine it any other way.
"The heap is cheaper," said Shannon W. Dunlap, an environmental
manager with Placer Dome. "Our ore wouldn't work without the heap."
But much of those masses of disturbed rock, exposed to the rain and
air for the first time, are also the source of mining's multibillion-
dollar environmental time bomb. Sulfides in that rock will react with
oxygen, making sulfuric acid.
That acid pollutes and it also frees heavy metals like cadmium, lead
and mercury, which are harmful to people and fish even at low
concentrations. The chain reaction can go on for centuries.
Many industry officials, reluctant to utter the word pollution,
protest that much of what they leave behind is not waste at all but
ground-up rock. The best-run mines reclaim land along the way, they
say, "capping" the rock piles with soil and using lime to try to
forestall acid generation.
But stopping pollution forever is difficult. Even rock piles that are
capped, in an attempt to keep out air and rain, can release
pollutants, particularly in wet climates.
Cyanide can present long-term problems, too. Most scientists agree
that cyanide decomposes in sunlight and is not dangerous if greatly
diluted. But a study by the United States Geological Survey in 2000
said that cyanide can convert to other toxic forms and persist,
particularly in cold climates.
And just as cyanide dissolves gold out of the rock, it releases
harmful metals, too.
There have also been significant accidents involving cyanide. From
1985 to 2000, more than a dozen reservoirs containing cyanide-laden
mine waste collapsed, the United Nations Environment Program reported.
The most severe disaster occurred in Romania in 2000, when mine waste
spilled into a tributary of the Danube River, killing more than a
thousand tons of fish and issuing a plume of cyanide that reached
1,600 miles to the Black Sea.
That spill led to calls for the gold industry to improve its handling
of cyanide. After five years of discussion, the industry unveiled a
new code this month. It sets standards for transporting and storing
cyanide and calls on companies to submit to inspections by a new
But the cyanide code is voluntary and not enforced by government. And
Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental science at the University
of Nevada, says it does not adequately deal with one of mining's most
important, unattended questions: What happens when the mine closes?
A Rocky Mountain Disaster
One answer can be found in a rural, rugged area of northeastern
Montana called the Little Rocky Mountains.
There, Dale Ployhar often comes to the high bare slopes around the
abandoned Zortman-Landusky gold mine to plant pine seedlings on a
silent hillside that has been reclaimed by little more than grasses.
"I bring lodgepole seeds and scatter them around, hoping they'll come
back," he said, looking out over the tiny town of Zortman, population
Zortman-Landusky was the first large-scale, open-pit cyanide operation
in the United States when it opened in 1979. The imprint it left on
the environment, psyche and politics of Montana continues today.
What happened there -- a cacophonous, multilayered disaster involving
bankruptcy, bad science, environmental havoc and regulatory gaps -
foreshadowed the risky road that gold has taken in the years since,
mining experts, government regulators and environmentalists say.
"There's a lot of bitterness left," said Mr. Ployhar, 65, a heavy
equipment operator, whose son bought some of the mine lands at a
bankruptcy auction four years ago.
Some mining experts say that Zortman-Landusky -- a combination of two
open pits near Zortman and the neighboring village of Landusky -
offered a steep learning curve on how chemical mining worked, and
Others say that overly ambitious production schedules by the mine's
owner, Pegasus Gold, based in Canada, were to blame. A bonus package
of more than $5 million for top executives, announced after the
company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1998, did not help.
Mining with cyanide can be tricky even in the best conditions. At
Zortman, the company made the mistake of building their cyanide heaps
atop rock that turned acidic. The cyanide and the acid mixed in a
toxic cocktail that seeped from the mounds.
Mining stopped in 1996, and company officials insisted in their public
comments over the next year that they wanted to be responsible
corporate citizens and stay to clean up the property. But the price of
gold was falling, then below $280 an ounce, and Pegasus closed its
"This became one of the worst cases in Montana," said Wayne E. Jepson,
manager of the Zortman project at the Montana Department of
Environmental Quality. "But even as late as 1990, one of the last
studies for Landusky predicted no acid in any significant amounts."
Environmental risks from hard-rock mines often turn out to be
understated and underreported, according to two recent studies.
Robert Repetto, an economist at the University of Colorado, examined
10 mines in the United States and abroad run by publicly traded
companies. All but one, he wrote in a June report, had failed to fully
disclose "risks and liabilities" to investors.
The environmental group Earthworks examined 22 mines for a report it
will publish in November. Almost all of them had water problems,
leading it to conclude that "water quality impacts are almost always
underestimated" before mining begins.
"The combination of the regulatory approach and the science is what
creates inaccurate predictions," said James R. Kuipers, a consultant
and former mining engineer, one of the authors of the study.
At Zortman-Landusky, the state wrote the environmental impact study
itself, based primarily on information from the company, Mr. Kuipers
Montana and other big mining states still often depend on mining
companies for much of the scientific data about environmental impact,
or the money to pay for the studies, state and federal regulators say,
mainly because government agencies generally lack the resources to do
expensive, in-depth research themselves.
Some mine regulators defend the practice, saying that having
scientific data supplied by companies with a financial interest in the
outcome is not necessarily bad if the review is stringent.
"What is important to make the system work is that state and federal
agencies have the wherewithal and expertise to look at the
information," said Mr. Wireman of the Denver E.P.A. office.
But one lesson of Zortman is that good information is sometimes
In the early 1990's, an E.P.A. consultant and former mining engineer,
Orville Kiehn, warned in a memo to his bosses that not enough money
was being set aside by the mine for water treatment.
Mr. Kiehn's opinion, vindicated today, went nowhere. The environmental
agency had little legal authority then -- and no more today -- to
protect the public from an operating mine except by filing a lawsuit,
as it did in 1995 after Pegasus had already violated federal clean
The company settled the suit in 1996 and agreed to pay $32.3 million
mostly to upgrade and expand water treatment.
At the time, state officials rejected the idea of squeezing Pegasus to
put up more money. This spring, Montana's legislature created a
special fund for water treatment to make up for it, for the next 120
years, at a cost of more than $19 million.
Washington is also coming to grips with the failure to plan for the
cost of mining. The Government Accountability Office, the
investigative arm of Congress, sharply criticized the E.P.A. in August
for not requiring metal mines to provide assurances that they can pay
for cleanups, a failure that it said had exposed taxpayers to
potentially billions of dollars in liabilities.
For Montana, the Zortman experience was chilling. In 1998, as the
catastrophe was making headlines across the state, voters approved the
nation's first statewide ban on cyanide mining, halting any new gold
projects. They renewed the ban last year.
Profit and Poverty
Today gold companies are striking out to remote corners of the globe
led by a powerful guide: the World Bank.
The bank, the pre-eminent institution for alleviating world poverty,
has argued that multinational mining companies would bring investment,
as well as roads, schools and jobs, to countries with little else to
offer than their natural resources. For the bank, which tries to draw
private investment to underdeveloped lands, the logic was simple.
"We invest to help reduce poverty and help improve people's lives,"
said Rashad-Rudolf Kaldany, head of oil, gas and mining at the bank's
profit-making arm, the International Finance Corporation.
The bank has worked both ends of the equation. At its urging, more
than 100 cash-strapped governments have agreed to cut taxes and
royalties to lure big mining companies, said James Otto, an adjunct
professor at the University of Denver law school.
At the same time, the bank put up money for or insured more than 30
gold-mining projects, looking for profits.
Though mining was a small part of the bank's portfolio, it was not
without controversy as accidents mounted. In one of the worst
disasters, in 1995, a mine in Guyana insured by the bank spilled more
than 790,000 gallons of cyanide-laced mine waste into a tributary of
the Essequibo River, the country's main water source.
By 2001, the World Bank president, James D. Wolfensohn, imposed a two-
year moratorium on mining investments and ordered a review of its
involvement in the industry.
Emil Salim, a former minister of environment of Indonesia, led the
study. "I said, up to now the International Finance Corporation was
only listening to business," he said in an interview in Jakarta. "I
said, so now let's give some voice to civil society."
Mr. Salim recommended reducing the use of cyanide, banning the
disposal of waste in rivers and oceans, and giving communities veto
power over mining company plans.
But the industry complained. And developing country governments said
they liked the bank's loans to gold mines. In the end, the bank
settled on more modest goals.
It pledged to make environmental impact statements understandable to
villagers and to back only projects with broad community support. It
also urged governments to spend mining companies' taxes and royalties
in the communities near the mines.
But critics and environmental groups say the bank demands little from
the mining companies in return for its money and its seal of approval.
The bank's guidelines for arsenic in drinking water are less stringent
than those of the World Health Organization, and mercury contamination
levels are more lenient than those permitted by the E.P.A., said
Andrea Durbin, a consultant to nongovernmental groups pressing for
The International Finance Corporation is drafting new guidelines that
will clarify what it expects from miners, said Rachel Kyte, its
director of environment and social development.
But the draft rules give mining companies even more latitude, said
Manish Bapna, the executive director of the Bank Information Center, a
group that monitors the bank. They will make it easier for companies
to evict indigenous people and to mine in some of the globe's most
treasured habitats, he said.
Despite the World Bank's two-year review, little has changed, said
Robert Goodland, a former director of environment at the bank who was
an adviser on the study. "The bank insists on business as usual," he
Resistance in Guatemala
The first piece of new mining business the bank invested in after its
review can be found today in the humid, green hills of western
Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, a big burly man who mixes politics and
religion with ease, doesn't understand why the World Bank lent $45
million to a rich multinational company for a gold mine in his
impoverished region of Mayan farmers.
"Why not spend the money directly to help the people?" he asked.
Sprawled across a deep wooded valley, a new mine built by Glamis Gold,
a Canadian company, was chosen by the World Bank last year as a new
model for how gold mining could help poor people.
But the mine has faced protest at every turn.
At the June 2004 board meeting of the International Finance
Corporation, there was considerable skepticism about its $45 million
loan to Glamis.
Members questioned why a $261 million project was creating only 160
long-term jobs and giving money to a "well capitalized" company like
Glamis at all, according to minutes of the meeting provided to The
Times by a nongovernmental group opposed to the project.
Others were worried that the I.F.C. was relying too heavily on
information from Glamis about the potential for pollution.
The World Bank had pledged to back only mines with broad local
support. But on the ground in Guatemala, opposition boiled over last
Angry farmers set up a roadblock to stop trailers carrying huge
grinding machines for the mine. After 40 days, and battles between
police and protesters, the equipment had to be escorted by soldiers.
To persuade the villagers of the mine's benefits, Glamis flew 19
planeloads of farmers to a mine it runs in Honduras.
But the villagers of Sipicapa still wanted their voices heard. On a
cool Saturday morning in June, more than 2,600 men and women dressed
in their weekend best, with children in tow, crowded into the
community's yards, churches and verandas to vote in a nonbinding
"We are already regretting that our forefathers allowed the Spaniards
to buy our land for trinkets and mirrors," said Fructuoso Lopez Perez,
a local mayor. "So we should vote so our children will thank us for
At that, a church full of local people raised their hands in a
unanimous show of opposition to the mine.
Much of the peasants' fury was informed by Robert E. Moran, an
American hydrogeologist, who was asked by Madre Selva, a Guatemalan
nongovernmental organization, to visit the mine and review its
environmental impact statement.
Mr. Moran, who was on the advisory board of the bank's mining study,
found it badly lacking. It did not address the "very large quantities
of water" the mine would use, or give basic information on the
"massive volumes" of waste the mine would produce, he said.
Tim Miller, vice president of Central American operations for Glamis,
said the environmental impact statement had been a "working document."
In Guatemala City, the Vice Minister of Mining, Jorge Antonio Garcia
Chiu, defended approval of the mine, saying it followed four months of
Mr. Kaldany, the I.F.C. official, said the investment and the
environmental impact statement were both sound. "We are a bank," he
said. "We go on the basis of a business development project. Then, as
well, the bank asks: Are we needed? Are we adding any value?"
Glamis had already spent $1.3 million on social programs in the
villages as part of the bank's requirements, Mr. Kaldany said.
At the mine, the grinding and churning of new machinery being tested
already echoes across the valley. Production could begin as early as
Mr. Miller, of Glamis, said the mine was a winner for the people, and
his company. In fact, he said, Glamis didn't need the bank, the bank
came to Glamis.
Bank officials "were anxious to make some investments" in the region,
he said. The company is expecting to gross $1 billion over the life of
the mine, with profits of $200 to $300 million.
"That's a return of about 25 to 30 percent," he said.
Ghana: The Social Costs
The men of Binsre on Ghana's ancient Gold Coast carry on their own
hunt for gold. Nearly naked, their arms and legs slathered in gray
ooze, they sift through the muck in a large pit, using buckets and
hard hats, looking for any last scrap.
So far industrial mining has not lived up to its promise for these men
and their families. They are illegal miners who find work not inside
the highly mechanized mines of Ghana's first-world investors, but on
the fringes, scavenging the waste left behind by AngloGold Ashanti,
the world's second-largest gold company, based in South Africa.
Six miners have died in the last several years, most of them overcome
by fumes when waste from the mine gushed into the pit, said Hannah
Owusu-Koranteng, an advocate for the illegal miners. The mine tried to
keep the men out.
"We used to use dogs," said AngloGold Ashanti's chief financial
officer, Kwaku Akosah-Bempah. "Then they said we were using dogs to
bite them." So the mine stopped using the dogs and the men returned.
In the nearby village of Sanso, a few men said they had lost their
land to the mine. Now they carve shafts into a mountain of waste rock,
where they haul, hammer, chip and sift.
"You wake up one day and you realize your farm is destroyed," said
Assemblyman Benjamin Annan, a local politician. "They say they will
compensate but it takes one or two years. So people are compelled to
go to illegal mining, the way our ancestors did."
Industrial-size shaft mining has existed in Ghana for 100 years, but
with the price of gold soaring, more companies are arriving now, this
time bringing open-pit cyanide mines. The investment has been greeted
warmly by the government.
Newmont is set to spend a billion dollars on a new mine next year and
on a second mine -- in one of the badly deforested country's last
remaining forest preserves -- in 2007.
The World Bank is here, too, preparing to lend the company $75
million. Together, the bank and Newmont say, they aim to show how
social development and gold mining can be married.
Newmont compensated the farmers who were moved off their land. It is
offering training for new jobs, like growing edible snails and making
soap. It built new concrete and tin-roofed houses to replace homes
made of mud.
But the mine will create just 450 full-time jobs. More than 8,000
people will be displaced.
"The house is O.K.," said Gyinabu Ali, 35, a divorced mother of five
children, who recently moved into her gaily painted two-room house,
with a toilet out back, that overlooks several dozen similar units
resembling a poor man's Levittown. "I miss my land where I could grow
my own food."
Near the mine of Newmont's competitor, AngloGold Ashanti, in Obuasi,
only half of the homes have an indoor bathroom, and 20 percent have
running water. With the exception of the brick villas of the company
executives, Obuasi today looks like a vast and squalid shanty town.
The chief financial officer, Mr. Akosah-Bempah, said he was offended
by the poor conditions. Most of the company's taxes and royalties had
stayed in the capital, he said, leaving the ramshackle town bereft of
the benefits of gold mining.
"Sometimes we feel embarrassed by going to Obuasi," he said. "Not
enough has gone back into the community."
Somini Sengupta contributed reporting from New Delhi for this article.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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