This is a screen capture from a new reality show on The History Channel called Bamazon. It's about eight construction workers from Alabama who decide to go to the Amazon in search of a fortune in gold. They mine gold in the Amazon the way we used to do it in California -- with high pressure hoses to wash minute amounts of it out of the hills, and mercury to make it useable. Lots and lots of mercury.
But that was in the 19th century. This is happening in the Amazon. Now.
A New York Times op-ed by an honored scientist and a research associate brought this to my attention. Warning! The news is scary.
Artisanal miners succeed where large, centralized operations fail by evading regulations and targeting gold that has eroded over eons into river sediments, known as placer deposits, that are broadly distributed over vast landscapes.
But to get even an ounce of that gold, miners have to upend tons of river sediment. They pump a continuous slurry of sediment and river water over mats that trap minute fractions of gold-enriched dust, discharging their tailings back into the river.
Periodically, the accumulated gold dust is separated, and the gold isolated by amalgamating it with mercury. Invariably, the mercury is burned off into the atmosphere or, like the tailings, poured into waterways. Over 1,000 tons of mercury is dumped or burned off annually, and several large rivers have been so exhaustively mined that they simply disappear into vast mud pits that make parts of the Amazon look like the Somme.
Here in California, we are still dealing with the legacy of destruction and mercury deposits from our gold rush. It's painful to hear that once again our culture is chewing up a beautiful part of the world for the sake of jewelry, but to hear that we now view this destruction as entertainment?