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New miner sluices for good gold

Analytic chemist turned surfer invents a way to recover fine particles without the toxins
by: KRISTINA SHAFER, Cleangold’s David Plath shows miners in Godo Olo, Suriname, how to use the sluice he invented.

Insults from colleagues, malaria shots and children with mercury poisoning were not part of David Plath's plan when he left a job at Portland General Electric to move to Lincoln City. He just wanted to surf.

Several years later, when Portlander Kristina Shafer headed out to Lincoln City for the day, she didn't know that odysseys to Nome, Ghana and Suriname would follow.

Plath was a college friend of Shafer's sister. Shafer, who worked in advertising, was on a business trip to the coast, so she met up with Plath for a game of golf. She asked him about an invention he had patented. It had 'something to do with gold mining,' her sister had told her. When he explained the Cleangold sluice to her, she admits, 'I had no idea what he was talking about.'

She did know enough about him to know he wasn't a wingnut. Plath has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in oceanography from Oregon State University. He worked for the Bonneville Power Administration, in its environmental lab, starting in 1979, and later for Portland General Electric.

Only a dyed-in-the-wool scientist would reminisce about the 1980s by saying, 'It was a really fascinating time to be an analytical chemist.'

The climate changed, though - utilities started to be run by bankers instead of by electrical engineers. In 1993, Plath moved to the beach: 'You get to a point in your life,' he says, 'you kind of think, well, I'm not really about just accumulating things.'

For a while Plath worked on an idea for an artificial reef that could be deployed to improve surfing conditions temporarily, say, for the duration of a surf contest. It didn't work out. It did lead to prototypes for something completely different.

Using Oregon beaches as a laboratory, Plath developed a new way to separate fine metallic particles out of sand and dirt. His invention is cheap, simple and, most important, a chemical-free way to collect gold.

He did not, however, strike it rich. Most of us associate gold with wealth. We think of nuggets rolling in creek beds, or fat veins running through solid rock. The reality of gold mining in the modern world, though, is nothing like a Yosemite Sam cartoon. The gold in them thar hills is in a fine powder, and large-scale industrial mining operations extract it systematically by processing ton after ton of ore, and using cyanide to leech out the precious metal.

Cyanide, of course, is a dangerous thing. It's practically synonymous with poison. It's closely regulated and carefully contained, but accidents do happen, such as the massive cyanide spill in Romania in 2000.

Talk of chemical spills struck a nerve with Shafer. During a stint as a radio news reporter, she had covered a metam sodium (pesticide) spill in the Sacramento River.

She also had worked in marketing and publicity, and while researching an advertising brochure for a jeweler, she had inadvertently learned about the human rights abuses surrounding gold mining in Africa.

'It was really serendipitous to meet David and be told about his invention,' she says.

Suspicious consumers demur

It was serendipitous for both of them. Plath had been trying to get industrial mining companies interested in his technological breakthrough, to be met with nothing but what he diplomatically terms 'impolite turn-downs.'

Nor did recreational miners - folks who spend their vacations prospecting and panning for gold - take the bait.

Plath didn't realize that he was entering a crowded field full of suspicious consumers: 'First they said I was lying, then they said I was an idiot,' he recalls. 'The patent files are full of these great miracle mystery machines.'

When Plath's sluice is plunked down in front of you, your first thought will probably be, 'Where's the rest of it?' It looks like three sides of an aluminum cube, with a bright blue lining thin enough that it could have been cut from a plastic tarp. And that's it. A plastic scraper, a black panning dish and water are the only other equipment.

Shafer was intrigued, though, and she figured Plath could use someone with some sales experience. It was her research that turned Cleangold from a business proposition into a mission. Plath says, 'She was the one, actually, that started discovering the entire world of artisanal mining, which I was completely unfamiliar with.'

Millions are miners

At least 13 million people worldwide, from more than 30 developing countries, engage in artisanal and small-scale mining, according to Communities and Small-Scale Mining, an advocacy group affiliated with the World Bank.

These are subsistence miners, collecting particles of gold out of streambeds, in many cases making barely enough to live. They don't use cyanide; instead, they use mercury, and, unlike industrial miners, they are releasing all their byproducts directly into the environment. This is taking place all over the world, in Africa, South America, Asia and Central Europe.

Mercury is toxic. Exposure to mercury can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and it's especially harmful to children. Released into waterways, mercury accumulates in the bodies of fish, rendering them inedible. Shafer and Plath realized that they had something in their hands that could reduce the spread of mercury contamination - potentially, on a global scale.

They went to Nome, Alaska, to test the Cleangold sluice in the gold-rich ground there, with impressive results. Shafer, who continues to live in Portland, formed Artminers, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about sustainable mining practices.

A representative from Communities and Small-Scale Mining became interested in the project, and invited Plath and Shafer to the organization's annual conference in Ghana in 2003.

That led to a contact at the University of British Columbia, where the invention was tested (results have not been officially released) and to a friendship with environmental journalist Rachael van der Kooye, who is based in Suriname, a small country tucked into a northern corner of Brazil. Van der Kooye introduced Cleangold to Rickford Vieira, a mining engineer and the pollution abatement coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund in Suriname.

Is fair trade jewelry on way?

A grant from World Bank's Development Marketplace fund allowed Plath and Shafer to make two trips to Suriname. By this time they also had spent a fair amount of their own money. Shafer says of Cleangold, 'If it turned out to not be everything that David said that it was, at least I wouldn't feel like I wasted my money, because my heart was in the right place.'

For the most part, though, things went well in Suriname. In their report to the World Bank, they list their accomplishments to date as exceeding expectations. They were able to test their product in the field, while at the same time training indigenous miners on its use. They will return again this November.

There is progress on other fronts, as well. As fair trade coffee and fair trade chocolate become familiar terms, there's increased consumer interest in the idea of fair trade jewelry. Plath and Shafer have been nominated for an award from the Tech Museum of Innovation, a hands-on museum of science and technology in San Jose, Calif.

At last, the world is starting to take notice of Cleangold. And it has become an adventure that could lead anywhere in the world - hopefully, somewhere with good surfing.

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