Tarnished gold

Jewelers dig dirt on mining



It was an unusual Tiffany’s advertisement, not hawking flashy jewelry, but denouncing the government’s decision to allow a mining company to tunnel three miles beneath northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains wilderness to extract silver and copper for the next 30 years.

The famous Tiffany & Co. took the mining industry by surprise with its full-page ad in the March 24 Washington Post—an open letter from Michael Kowalski, the firm’s board chairman and chief executive, to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

The letter criticized the Rock Creek mine project as harmful to the environment and to the grizzly bears, bull trout and other wildlife that depend on this pristine wilderness for survival.

Although approved, the project still faces legal challenges from environmental groups. The Revett Silver Co., which would run the mine, contends that it would go to great lengths to safeguard wildlife and the environment.

But Kowalski wrote in his letter: “Forest Service officials in the region have approved the Rock Creek project in concept despite vehement opposition by a coalition of local, regional and national conservation groups, along with local business representatives, public officials and ordinary citizens. The opponents’ fears are justified.

“This huge mine would discharge millions of gallons of waste water per day conveying pollutants to the Clark Fork River and ultimately into Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho, a national treasure in its own right. Vast quantities of mine tailings—a polite term for toxic sludge—would be stored in a holding facility of questionable durability. Wildlife already struggling to survive would face new perils.”

In interviews after the ad appeared, Kowalski said his consciousness had been raised a few years ago by the discovery that diamonds were being mined under brutal conditions in some African countries and being used by rebels to pay for wars. After becoming involved in social justice campaigns against these so-called conflict diamonds, Tiffany’s started paying more attention to other mining issues, he said.

“We’ve always believed that we have an implicit brand contract with our customers—they demand that Tiffany products, precious metals and gemstones be extracted in environmentally and socially responsible ways,” he told the Washington Post.

For Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental coalition that annoys the mining industry like a green fly, the Tiffany’s ad was a triumph. Earthworks had been quietly lobbying Kowalski and Tiffany’s on mining issues for years in the hope that it might lead to just such a publicity coup.

Earthworks is pushing for reform of the 1872 Mining Law as obsolete, enacted during an era when Congress sought to encourage fast development of sparsely settled regions. The law contains no environmental provisions and allows companies to extract mineral wealth from public land without paying royalties. In its ad, Tiffany’s called the law “a particularly egregious example” of how statutes and regulations tilt in favor of developers.

“This is the first time that a major jewelry company has taken such a highly visible stance calling for reforms to the main U.S. law regulating mining, and could be an early sign of fears of consumer backlash from the destructive impacts of mining on the part of retailers of jewelry and high-tech products that use gold, silver and other metals,” Earthworks’ Steve D’Esposito said.

Earthworks is doing its best to fan consumer feelings against the mining industry. Last Valentine’s Day, activists from the group stationed themselves outside jewelry and watch stores, including Cartier’s and Piaget’s on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. To the stores’ customers, they gave Valentine’s cards with the message, “Don’t tarnish your love with dirty gold.”

Earthworks hoped to build consumer awareness of the social and environmental costs of gold mining, what the group calls “one of the world’s dirtiest industries.” In the Third World, gold mining is associated with human rights abuses and environmental devastation. In this country, according to Earthworks, the production of a single 18 karat gold ring weighing less than an ounce generates at least two tons of mine waste.

On Valentine’s Day, the activists asked customers to demand to know where the store’s gold originated and whether it was mined responsibly.

Tiffany’s ad was a breakthrough for Earthworks’ campaign to bring consumer pressure to bear on the mining industry for the environmantal devastation caused by its extraction of other precious metals.

D’Esposito said Earthworks will approach more jewelry stores to take stands. Wal-Mart, for instance, is the nation’s largest retailer of jewelry.

Also on the Earthworks target list are the makers and sellers of cell phones and computers, which use much of the copper mined in this country.

“We’re going to be knocking on doors asking other retailers and companies to stand up and be counted,” D’Esposito said. “Those that don’t will potentially be subject to pressure to do so.

“It’s hard for people to make a connection between mining and what they do everyday,” he added. “But when you talk about jewelry and cell phones and computers, all of a sudden there’s that a-ha moment and they get it. All of a sudden it clicks. This Tiffany’s ad was a wake-up call. It’s an a-ha moment, and we’re going to keep pushing it out there on the street.”


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