At the other end of the spectrum are vast, open-pit mines run by the world's largest mining companies. Using armadas of supersize machines, these big-footprint mines produce three-quarters of the world's gold. They can also bring jobs, technologies, and development to forgotten frontiers. Gold mining, however, generates more waste per ounce than any other metal, and the mines' mind-bending disparities of scale show why: These gashes in the Earth are so massive they can be seen from space, yet the particles being mined in them are so microscopic that, in many cases, more than 200 could fit on the head of a pin. Even at showcase mines, such as Newmont Mining Corporation's Batu Hijau operation in eastern Indonesia, where $600 million has been spent to mitigate the environmental impact, there is no avoiding the brutal calculus of gold mining. Extracting a single ounce of gold there—the amount in a typical wedding ring—requires the removal of more than 250 tons of rock and ore.
As a girl growing up on the remote Indonesian island of Sumbawa, Nur Piah heard tales about vast quantities of gold buried beneath the mountain rain forests. They were legends—until geologists from an American company, Newmont Mining Corporation, discovered a curious green rock near a dormant volcano eight miles from her home. The rock's mossy tint meant it contained copper, an occasional companion to gold, and it wasn't long before Newmont began setting up a mine named Batu Hijau, meaning "green rock."
Nur Piah, then 24, replied to a Newmont ad seeking "operators," figuring her friendly manner would get her a job answering phones. When the daughter of a Muslim cleric arrived for training, though, her boss showed her a different operating booth—the cab of a Caterpillar 793 haul truck, one of the world's largest trucks. Standing 21 feet tall and 43 feet long, the truck was bigger than her family home. Its wheels alone were double her height. "The truck terrified me," Nur Piah recalls. Another shock soon followed when she saw the first cut of the mine itself. "They had peeled the skin off the Earth!" she says. "I thought, Whatever force can do that must be very powerful."
Ten years later, Nur Piah is part of that force herself. Pulling a pink head scarf close around her face, the mother of two smiles demurely as she revs the Caterpillar's 2,337-horsepower engine and rumbles into the pit at Batu Hijau. Her truck is part of a 111-vehicle fleet that hauls close to a hundred million tons of rock out of the ground every year. The 1,800-foot volcano that stood here for millions of years? No hint of it remains. The space it once occupied has been turned into a mile-wide pit that reaches 345 feet below sea level. By the time the seam at Batu Hijau is exhausted in 20 years or so, the pit will bottom out at 1,500 feet below sea level. The environmental wreckage doesn't concern Nur Piah anymore. "I only think about getting my salary," she says.