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Good As Gold

The Metal That Put California and South Africa on the Map Is Still a Hot Commodity Around the World
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 4)

With all the people in the world lusting after gold, are we likely to run out of the beautiful metal? It doesn't seem so. Production continues to rise, although at the moment demand is outpacing production. But at mine sites around the world, both old and new, plans are afoot to increase the world supply of gold.

At Anglo-American Corp.'s Western Deep Levels mine, work has begun to deepen the shaft system, which will extend the mine's life by 14 years and ultimately yield an estimated 475 tons of gold. Looking even deeper into the earth, another section of the mine, Western Ultra Deep Levels, could be developed to a mining depth of between roughly 11,000 and 16,000 feet. The cost to sink each shaft would be approximately $100 million--the prize: estimated reserves of more than 1,750 tons of gold. At such depths, the temperature of the rock is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you touch the rock, you burn your hand. The miners work in rubbery suits with pockets filled with ice.

In the West African nation of Mali, a mine owned by Anglo-American and three other entities is in the construction stage. This open-pit mine will be worked by bulldozers that strip away the earth in huge "bites" of ore, creating terraces that diminish in diameter as they descend into the earth. The cost to bring the mine to the start of production is more than $250 million. And in Peru, a joint venture involving Newmont and Barrick Gold, the two largest production firms in the United States, is embarked on a three-year-old operation said to be the most profitable mine in the world. The two firms also have mines in Nevada, where 60 percent of U.S. production comes from, that are part of the Carlin Trend, a vast store of gold that rivals the Witwatersrand of South Africa.

These open-pit mines are the target of environmentalists who are dismayed by the huge holes they create in the earth and the caustic recovery process that goes along with it. The question is whether they will be active enough to curtail future U.S. mining development as has happened already in Canada. U.S. production has soared over the past decade and a half. In 1980, the United States produced fewer than 32 tons. Now, production is nearing 344 tons annually. The nation has become the world's second biggest producer, after South Africa. If the trend continues, the United States could outpace South Africa, says John Lutley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Gold Institute. In 1995, South Africa was number one with 522.4 tons; the United States was second with 329.3 tons, followed by Australia (253.5 tons) and Canada (150.3 tons).

The desire for gold is as old as the Bible and as new as space exploration. From the Golden Calf, the idol mentioned in Exodus: 32 in the Old Testament, to the first walk on the moon, gold has been part of our language and part of our lives. When space vehicles explored the moon, they were protected by a veneer of gold foil that deflected solar radiation. When the president flies in Air Force One, he is protected from attack by gold's anti-missile reflectors. And when a surgeon implants a pacemaker, gold goes into the human body. Unseen gold also helps the surgeon's laser cut out disease. We cannot, it seems, live without gold.

Ettagale Blauer is the author of Contemporary American Jewelry Design (Chapman & Hall, 1991).

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