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Public Lands Mining

New West Development, September 20, 2008

Wal-Mart’s Eco-Gold Tarnished, Say Enviros
By Richard Martin

Wal-Mart claims its new jewelry line is eco-friendly, and based on "sustainable mining." Environmentalists, however, disagree.

Released in July under the brand "Love, Earth," the new gold marketing program claims to produce "fashion jewelry that honors, cherishes and protects our planet." Gold and silver contained in the items purchased through Love, Earth is 100% traceable, Wal-Mart says, through something called the Jewelry Sustainable Value Network, back to the original mines. The precious metals used in the jewelry are "mined and manufactured to our standards and criteria."

In fact, Wal-Mart's gold comes from mines in Utah and Nevada, owned by mining giants Rio Tinto and Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., which have a long history of environmental problems and pollution, according to environmental groups Global Response and Great Basin Resource Watch.

"The mines in Utah and Nevada and the factories in Peru and Bolivia where Wal-Mart claims its gold for Love, Earth is 'sustainably mined and manufactured' are not monitored or certified by any credible independent agent," says a Sept. 11 statement from Global Response, which is based in Boulder. The retail giant is "taking advantage of people's genuine concern for the planet and luring them into purchasing a product that … is extracted at great cost to the earth and to human communities."

Great Basin Resource Watch has been working for the better part of two decades to compel Newmont, which owns or controls approximately 3,056 square miles of land in Nevada, to clean up its operations in the state. Newmont, one of the world's mining giants, has operations around the world and has done battle with environmentalists for years over its mines in the developing world. Nevada is an important center of production for the company, which is the second-largest U.S. gold producer. Of the 5 million to 5.4 million ounces of gold Newmont expects to produce in 2008, more than half will come from Nevada. Last year, according to the company's annual report, Newmont generated $580 million in profits from Nevada gold. Nevada mines are nominally in compliance with state and federal regulations, says GBRW executive director Dan Randolph, they are hardly "sustainable" as Wal-Mart, and the mining company, claim.

"Part of the question is, are you out of compliance if you don’t get the ticket?" asks Randolph. "Is it speeding if you're driving over the speed limit but you don’t get the ticket?"

Sifting microscopic gold particles from the Nevada's arid soils is an incredibly laborious process: "for every ounce of gold refined approximately 100 to 200 tons of earth had to be moved," says a Resource Watch analysis based on Newmont's environmental impact statements. Environmental problems found at Newmont's Nevada mines include depletion of the water table, air pollution from mercury mixed with the gold ore, "acid mine drainage" from exposed rock at the mine site, and toxic holding ponds, laced with cyanide and heavy metals, left behind once the gold is extracted.

Indeed, many environmentalists consider "sustainable mining" an oxymoron, preferring the more guarded term "responsible mining."

Led by Tiffany & Co., many jewelers have climbed on the responsible-mining wagon in the last decade, supporting efforts like the "No Dirty Gold" movement and programs to avoid the purchase of tainted precious stones or "blood diamonds." Global Response executive director Paula Palmer calls the Love, Earth marketing "greenwashing" and an attempt to "hoodwink consumers into thinking they can ‘reduce impact on human health and the environment’ by buying gold jewelry." Great Basin Resource Watch's Randolph, however, is more circumspect. Having the spent the last few years attempting to build bridges to Newmont in order to foster incremental changes in mining practices, he is loath to call the Wal-Mart program an out-and-out sham.

"The traceability aspect is a good step forward," he allows, an important part of the international effort to develop responsible mining standards.

Wal-Mart, in fact, has engaged with environmentalists in a series of conference calls to discuss the Love, Earth marketing plans. The Bentonville, Ark. company, according to Randolph, has agreed to alter its marketing materials to emphasize that the jewelry is traceable – and to temper claims that the mines from which the gold is purchased are environmentally benign.

While Wal-Mart's claims sound good to the average consumer, "To a more knowledgeable person, almost all modern mines could meet those criteria," Randolph says.

Wal-Mart has not made any changes to its existing marketing materials. In response to a request to interview Pam Mortensen, the executive heading the Love, Earth program, a Wal-Mart spokesperson provided a statement that included the following:

"Wal-Mart’s objective is to have a long-term, fundamental and positive influence on the jewelry supply chain by selling jewelry that is made from precious metals and gems that are produced following Wal-Mart’s supplier standards and the Jewelry Sustainability Value Networks’ environmental and social sourcing criteria."

© 2008 NewWest

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton