Tiny Organism Could Fight Gold Rush

Conservationists are fighting a rush to mine for gold with an unlikely weapon -- a miniscule single-celled organism.

THE GIST

Single-celled organisms called diatoms help to reveal possible environmental damage caused by mining activities.

Interest in gold mining has heightened in recent years in wildnerness-rich places like Alaska and French Guiana.

Alaskans are debating the constitutionality of a passed initiative called "Save Our Salmon."

A rush to mine for gold has taken over throughout the world, fueled by an economic downturn, high gold prices and improved mining technologies.

But concerned conservationists are trying to halt the rush. They hope that a miniscule single-celled organism, called a diatom, can lead the fight.

A study that will appear in the March 2012 issue of Ecological Indicators describes how diatoms are sensitive to gold mining disturbances to the environment.

These tiny life forms, which exist at the bottom of the food chain and are important indicators of the health of an ecosystem, may serve as valid sensors of the potential ecosystem stress caused by gold mining activities.

Lead author Loïc Tudesque explained to Discovery News that streams affected by gold mining tend to exhibit more silt buildup and muddiness, which disturbs diatoms.

"In streams without siltation, diatoms are strongly attached," he said. "In strongly disturbed streams, the diatom genera are not attached and are very mobile."

For the study, Tudesque and his colleagues collected and analyzed diatoms at 10 different sites affected by gold mining activity in French Guiana. This overseas region of France, bordering Brazil and Suriname, has 90 percent rainforest coverage with rich tropical wilderness areas.

According to the authors, gold mining activities, including illegal mining sites, have increased, "potentially leading to considerable environmental damage." The miners are suspected of causing deforestation, heavy metal pollution, and erosion due to use of high-pressure water jets and other equipment.

Gold mining, Tudesque said, is "detrimental to the forests and the rivers."

To help mitigate damage to rivers, a solution might be "to add a decanter to collect the effluents." In the meantime, he and his colleagues propose that analysis of diatoms can help to monitor ecosystem health in affected areas of French Guiana and elsewhere in the world.

Another such modern gold rush area is Alaska, where environmentalists have recently been trying to block one of North America's largest open pit mining operations near Bristol Bay, southwest Alaska. The region also happens to be one of the world's most productive salmon fisheries.

Last month, a "Save Our Salmon" initiative passed, but mine developers are now challenging the local initiative in court. Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for a group called the Pebble Partnership, representing the mining companies, points out that the narrow margin victory demonstrates how many people are still thinking about the economic and other possible benefits of increased mining activity.

Melissa Heuer is deputy director of the Anchorage-based Renewable Resources Coalition that supports "Save Our Salmon."

"Our members are sports, commercial and subsistence fishermen and hunters from around the state," Heuer told Discovery News. "This is one of the first times I can remember all of these user groups coming together and agreeing on the same issue."

She admits that many people in Alaska are pro-development, but adds that "the size and location of the mine, as well as the permitting history of our state, has caused many Alaskans to look at this issue in a different light. We have a large percentage of miners and oil industry workers in our membership who have seen first hand what mining does and know it cannot be done in a responsible manner in this area."

People on both sides of the debate are claiming financial and job creation superiority. On the salmon side, the Bristol Bay fishery provides up to 13,000 jobs a year to Alaskans and others, according to Heuer. The mine supporters argue that their proposal would create jobs now and far into the future.

The constitutionality of the passed "Save Our Salmon" initiative is currently in legal hands, with the case expected to go to court in mid- November.