“Say no to gold mining; no to cyanide in our water” - Anonymous Protester, Northern Ireland
Protestors objected to Dalradian's proposed use of cyanide in Northern Ireland, forcing the company drop their plans.

In the upcoming US presidential election, let’s imagine each candidate has a mining policy agenda that they are pushing. The first candidate wants to expand gold mining operations in your county. The second candidate wishes to expand Bitcoin operations in your county. Which mining operation would a hypothetical voter prefer to pop up in their backyard? To figure this out, let’s dig deeper into gold and bitcoin mining.

Gold mining is one of the oldest industries in the world. At 6,700 years old, gold mining has seen countless technological innovations to support the spread and adoption of gold. Gold has been a backbone of human civilization, ranging from the basis of international currency to the status symbol of royalty and the elite.

Image 1: Gold miners destroying the Amazon Rainforest to mine gold, Venezuela.

One would think that with thousands of years of technological innovation, gold miners would utilize safe extraction processes to minimize toxic contamination of people and the environment. Unlike most modern industries that tend to improve the safety of their workers and lessen their environmental impact, gold mining has evolved from simple stone tools to a highly toxic chemical process that destroys everything it touches. On the other hand, next time you see a bitcoin ASIC hashing (mining), try and find any toxic chemicals leaking into the air/ground.

Chemicals such as mercury and arsenic are commonly found in many major gold mines, such as the Lega Dembi mine in Ethiopia, that contaminate workers and lead to significant health problems and birth defects. Gold mining produces about 96% of the world’s arsenic emissions; Bitcoin mining produces 0% of the world’s arsenic emissions. The historic images from the gold rush with men and pickaxes hacking away at rocks to unearth grapefruit-sized gold nuggets is a far cry from the reality of modern gold mining, which is incredibly destructive. Nowadays, it takes an average of 91 tones of earth to be permanently displaced to mine 1 ounce of gold, with the amount of earth needing to be displaced constantly increasing as time goes on. Gold mining is just the first step, next the displaced earth must be processed to extract and refine the gold ore.

Image 2: Warning signs at Crowfoot mine, Nevada

As modern gold mining evolved into displacing large amounts of earth to filter out gold particulates, chemicals such as cyanide are used to better extract gold particulates. This process is used in 90% of modern gold mining. That’s right – cyanide – the poisonous, deadly stuff. When a mining company messes up and spills cyanide, it can be catastrophic, contaminating drinking water in countless local municipalities as well as crop irrigation systems. The worst part is, sometimes the gold mining companies aren’t even aware of their deadly cyanide spill and/or are unwilling to admit their wrongdoing, making the problem even more difficult to measure and mitigate.

In 1982, in the Zortman-Landusky Mine gold mine in Montana, 52,000 gallons of cyanide solution poisoned the aquifer that supplies fresh drinking water for the town of Zortman. The incident went unnoticed until an employee noted the smell of cyanide in his tap water at home. Which then sparked an investigation that led the state of Montana to determine that the water poisoning was so severe that it would need expensive water treatment systems to operate forever to mitigate the contamination.

Unfortunately, cyanide spills occur all over the world to this day. In 2022, a damaged pipe in eastern Turkey flooded the Euphrates River, a critical Middle Eastern water source, with cyanide waste from gold mining. The gold mining company insists they only spilled 8kgs of cyanide solution, while environmental groups estimate the damage to be closer to 20 tons. Further increasing cyanide spillage risks are nearby natural disasters, which destructive mining operations can exacerbate.  

Image 3: A Turkish cyanide solution spill in the Euphrates River with a disputed amount of cyanide contamination.

While gold mining is environmentally destructive, toxic to biological life, and incredibly exploitive, Bitcoin Mining is environmentally friendly and terrifically safe. However, as the orange coin gains popularity, Bitcoin mining is unfairly villainized. The two biggest negative narratives against Bitcoin are around its energy consumption and environmental impact. Bitcoin mining critics argue that its energy usage disrupts local grids and raises energy prices for families. Due to the high density, portability and minimal inputs needed for Bitcoin ASICs, bitcoin mining can actually solve energy production and consumption issues and incentivize renewable energy investments.

While renewable energy production is rapidly expanding, intermittent changes to energy generation (supply) as well as demand result in a supply/demand imbalance. This imbalance can make it difficult to incentivize new energy producers to deploy renewable energy operations. Enter Bitcoin mining to enable producers to monetize unsellable energy to a secondary market (the Bitcoin protocol). As a result, renewable energy producers can better monetize their operations, resulting in the production of more renewable energy to lower prices for consumers. Win-win-win.

With zero poisonous chemical production, the only byproducts of a hashing ASIC are heat and noise. As a result, bitcoin miners are popping up in interesting places, such as northern greenhouses, where their heat byproduct warms the air and reduces the need for traditional heaters (see image 4). Bitcoin mining is so safe that it helps plants grow.

image 4: a bitcoin ASIC is used in a large greenhouse. The plants are thriving and a bit warmer thanks to the ASIC's heat production.

Returning to our initial question ‘Which mining operation would a hypothetical voter prefer to pop up in their backyard?’ Hopefully now the answer is obvious. This hypothetical may be less far-fetched than one may think, as American politicians wake up to the fact that bitcoin mining brings many positives to local energy grids, with minimal to no negative consequences on neighboring populations. While America was once the land of the gold rush, as Bitcoin mining adoption grows stateside could the U.S. become the land of ‘The Bit Rush’?