National Geographic : 2009 Jan
"Why is it that activists thousands of miles away are yelling, but nobody around the mine com- plains?" asks Malik Salim, Batu Hijau s senior external relations manager. "Gold is what drives everybody crazy." Most inhabitants of Sumbawa are farmers and fishermen who reside in wooden shacks built on stilts, their lives virtually untouched by the modern world. But inside the gates at Batu Hijau, Newmont has carved out of the jungle an American-style suburb, where some 2,000 of the mine s 8,000 employees live. Along the smoothly paved streets there is a bank, an international school, even a broadcast center that produces Newmont s in-house television chan- nel. Families arrive in SUVs for free-pizza night at a restaurant overlooking a lush golf course. Up the road there is a basketball gymnasium that Newmont sta ers jokingly refer to as "the second home of the Denver Nuggets." e name is tting for a Colorado-based gold- mining company, though there are no nuggets here. And therein lies the problem. Higher prices and advanced techniques enable companies to pro tably mine microscopic ecks of gold; to separate gold and copper from rock at Batu Hijau, Newmont uses a nely tuned otation technology that is nontoxic, unlike the poten- tially toxic cyanide "heap leaching" the com- pany uses in some of its other mines. Even so, no technology can make the massive waste generated by mining magically disappear. It takes less than 16 hours to accumulate more tons of waste here than all of the tons of gold mined in human history. e waste comes in two forms: discarded rock, which is piled into flat-topped mountains spread across what used to be pristine rain forest, and tailings, the e uent from chemical processing that New- mont pipes to the bottom of the sea. is method of "submarine tailings disposal" is e ectively banned in most developed coun- tries because of the damage the metal-heavy waste can do to the ocean environment, and Newmont practices it nowhere but in Indo- nesia. Four years ago an Indonesian court brought criminal charges against a Newmont subsidiary---even jailing ve of its employees for a month---for pumping pollutants into the sea near its now defunct Buyat Bay mine on the island of Sulawesi. Newmont was acquitted of all charges in 2007. Despite critics claims that the court caved in to the mining industry, New- mont defends its reliance on ocean dumping at Batu Hijau. "Land disposal would be cheaper but more damaging to the environment," argues Rachmat Makkasau, Batu Hijau s senior process manager. e tailings at Batu Hijau are released 2.1 miles o shore at a depth of 400 feet, above a steep drop-off that carries the waste down more than 10,000 feet. "We closely monitor the quality of the tailings, pipes, and seabed," says Makkasau. "At that depth, we are only a ecting some sea insects. " e deep sea may not have many defenders, but the rain forest does. And that may be one reason Batu Hijau s mountains of waste rock, rather than its submarine tailings, are fueling a conflict with the Indonesian government. Manpower at an improvised mine in Ghana includes a 13-year-old boy put to work sluicing for gold. Large mining firms control just 4 percent of Ghana's territory, but a landgrab by those firms evicted thousands of villagers from their homes, forcing many to survive by poaching gold. Illegal mining produces 25 percent of the world's gold.