Retailers to hold mine to higher gold standards

Times Staff Writer

Environmentalists want you to buy organic roses, and human rights groups tout conflict-free diamonds.

Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, jewelry retailers are stepping up a campaign that aims to discourage the mining and sale of “dirty gold.”

A group of prominent jewelers including Tiffany & Co., Helzberg Diamonds and Fortunoff will announce today that it opposes the massive gold and copper Pebble Mine planned for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, site of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.


The jewelers’ “Bristol Bay Protection Pledge” marks a new front in the “No Dirty Gold” initiative waged by environmental and human rights groups against destructive mining practices.

It is the first time that retailers, which have hitherto limited themselves to supporting general rules for mining, have joined in a campaign to halt a specific mine.

An estimated 80% of the gold used in the U.S. is for jewelry. And gold mines -- typically huge open pit operations where tiny veins of metal are ground from millions of tons of rock -- produce an average of 76 tons of waste per ounce of gold.

The resulting air and water pollution have made metals mining the leading contributor of toxic emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There are places where mining does not represent the best use of resources,” Michael Kowalski, Tiffany’s chairman and chief executive, said in an e-mail. “In Bristol Bay, we support . . . the salmon fishery as the best bet for sustainable, long-term benefit. For Tiffany & Co., and we believe for many of our fellow retail jewelers, this means we will look to other places to source gold.”

Sean McGee, a spokesman for the Pebble Mine, said the jewelers had not contacted the mine’s developers, a partnership of Vancouver, Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and London-based Anglo American.


“There is a lot of common ground between the Dirty Gold camp and the approach we are taking,” he said. “We support high environmental standards for mining. If the fisheries can’t be protected, we won’t advance the project.”

The campaign to clean up gold mines echoes the opposition to so-called blood diamonds, sold to finance conflicts in developing nations.

In the last few years, jewelers, working with nonprofit groups and the mining industry, set up a system to ensure diamonds as “conflict-free.” Now the “ethical jewelry” movement is preparing to expand with a certification program for gold and silver.

“It’s what’s happening in the marketplace,” said Stephen D’Esposito, president of Earthworks, a Washington-based advocacy group for mining reform. “Jewelers are highly sensitive to consumer concerns about the impact of the products they buy. It is a trend you see with food, coffee, wood, even sneakers.”

At the moment, retailers cannot tell where their gold has been mined. But in the coming year, D’Esposito said, jewelers will take the first steps to establish a chain of custody from mine to store.

A set of standards is under negotiation between mining companies, jewelry retailers and environmental and human rights groups.


So far, 28 companies, including eight of the 10 largest jewelry retailers in the U.S. have endorsed the “No Dirty Gold” campaign’s “Golden Rules.” The measures seek to ensure that gold is mined without threatening fragile ecosystems, that waste is not dumped into waterways and that workers’ rights are protected.

Signatories include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sterling Jewelers Inc., which markets Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria brands.

Earthworks wants all 28 companies that signed the Golden Rules pledge -- and others -- to also sign the Bristol Bay pledge. So far, only five have done so (besides Tiffany, Helzberg and Fortunoff, they are Ben Bridge Jeweler and Leber Jeweler Inc.).

Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest jewelry retailer, is reviewing the measure.

“We are committed to sourcing gold and other metals produced under the highest social, human rights and environmental standards,” spokeswoman Linda Blakley said.

Worldwide shortages and skyrocketing prices for gold and copper are fueling the push for Pebble Mine, which holds an estimated $300 billion in gold, copper and molybdenum. Northern Dynasty executives say the mine will bring well-paying jobs to an impoverished area of rural Alaska.

If the mine, which lies on the edge of two national parks, gains the necessary permits from the state of Alaska, it would involve excavating as much as 12 billion tons of earth which, after extracting the ore, would fill 10 square miles of impoundments. Two dams would be built to hold the waste.


“These lands were selected by the state of Alaska for their mineral potential, an important part of the rural economy,” McGee said.

But Dan Consenstein, head of the Renewable Resources Coalition, an Alaska-based group that opposes the project, said pollution from the mine would destroy the fishery, a globally significant resource and economic backbone of the area.

A coalition of native villages, sports fishing lodges and environmental groups has filed a ballot initiative to stop the mine, but the mining companies are battling it in court.