Can a mining company teach us about sustainability?

It’s a strange concept to get your head around. What could a mining company—a gold mining company—possibly teach anyone about sustainability?

If you want some gold today, you don’t settle in a quaint mountain town in the Rockies filled with scrappy boot strappers singing Colorado My Home Sweet Home in hopes of discovering a nice little vein you can claim.

Too many people have done that already.

To get some gold today, you gotta find it and figure out how to do operations in the furthest flung corners of the earth. In the Andes on the Chilean-Argentinean border. In the Kyrgyz Republic just north of the China border. Or maybe North of Cajamarca, Peru.

minpit_1You blast and scrape gaping pits out of the ground. It leaves a bit of a mark: If your pit is the largest, it’s square footage will be four times the size of Manhattan’s.

After clear cutting and scarring roads through the terrain to get them there, you use those truly uncanny haul trucks that you see in environmental scare documentaries to move the raw earth you dig up. The shoulder of a six-foot man comes to its wheel hub. Your mine pit miniaturizes them like a model scene on the set of a Terminator movie.

haultruckwstudents_1You chunk, grind and mash your raw earth into a fine mud using machinery of the kind that could fill an entire chapter in a Robert Kennedy Jr. book.

Then you dump a bunch of cyanide over the mud to get the gold out. And the used cyanide has to go somewhere. Preferably not in the clean water lake behind the dam you’ve created for your grinding and mashing and mud-making operations. So you build another dam and try to convince everyone that pouring cyanide and sulfur dioxide in there —open to the atmosphere—actually makes it inert. That it’ll be okay for generations that come after the mine closes*.

If your mine is really kickin’, you’ll get seven ounces of gold for around every 30 tons of earth you process. More than likely you’ll get one or two ounces. Maybe.

So what on earth was the Daniels College of Business thinking? A world-ranked business school that’s built a reputation on ethics is going to deliver a class that teaches sustainable development by working in partnership with Newmont Mining. Really.

Then again, like other b-schools it could have looked at Honda Hybrid market development. WalMart eco-friendly fleet renovations. Replacing standard light bulbs with fluorescents in Sears stores. Where’s the fun in that? Or, more to the point, where’s the learning in that?

This class will work hands-on and on location in the mud, dust, extravagance, and chemicals that is the gold mining business. With a company that’s had their share of troubles. Not the least of which includes a few employees actually jailed in Indonesia under charges of polluting an area bay.

So what will Newmont teach us? Should we even bother? Can gold mining even be green? I suppose this could all be a PR stunt on Newmont’s part. Maybe partnering in such ways with third party organizations will bring them good press (if I was their PR consultant, that’s exactly what I’d advise they do).

Agree with former CEO Wayne Murdy’s accolades? Think all that glitter is gilded? Think Newmont—and the gold industry in general—is the evil corporate empire writ large?

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* (This is a communications issue, by the way. This is exactly how to make it inert. Get geeky about cyanide and check out this article.)