The Unseen Hazards of the Alaskan Gold Rush

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In today's day and age, it would seem that Alaska is quickly becoming the new "western frontier." Alaska is now the furthest west that Americans today can go, and just like the pioneers of the past, they are determined to go as far as international boundaries will allow them, The west of old appears to be exhausted, with gold and oil rushes being a thing of a romanticized past.  Cowboys are being forgotten in the media, and instead, the spotlight seems to be on Alaska.  Alaska is constantly in the media today, with TV shows like "Flying Wild Alaska," "Ice Road Truckers," "Gold Rush" and "Bering Sea Gold" gaining millions of weekly viewers due to its fascinating portrayal of rugged life in the arctic, as well as the modern day gold rush.  These shows seem to advertise Alaska in a way that would strive to attract people looking for a sense of adventure, or an interesting way to strike it rich.  The mining shows are arguably the most popular of the bunch, with "Gold Rush" being the number one show in all of television on Friday nights while it was airing.  However, while focusing on the struggles and triumphs of the miners in the show, the environmental hazards that gold mining, or mining of that nature in general, called "open-pit mining," are conveniently ignored and never mentioned at all.

Mining in general creates large scale water contamination due to its leaking of chemicals and byproducts into underground water sources. According to Ground Truth, "mining has contaminated...over 40 percent of watersheds in the western continental US" alone.  A big environmental problem that results from mining, especially in Alaska, is that of the tailings, or leftovers from the mining process.  These tailings contain unwanted materials, such as dirt and rocks, but may also contain various other substances that may be hazardous to the environment if leaked into the water system. One common substance left behind in tailings is iron sulfide, which when exposed to air or water reacts and turns into sulfuric acid. According to Ground Truth, when the sulfuric acid is introduced to water, it makes it much more acidic, and can cause various toxic heavy metals to leach into the water.  The acidic water can get so bad that nothing but bacteria can survive when contaminated. This environmental issue is known as acid mine drainage.  Since many mines, especially gold mines, rely on close large quantities of water to function, the ease of contamination is evident.  There are ways to control and prevent acid contamination, however these methods of prevention, as well as the hazards themselves are never scene on the reality TV shows showcasing gold mining.  I feel that if audiences were clued in to the potential environmental hazards that gold mining can have, then it would be a very efficient way to cause awareness, especially since millions of viewers watch the show every week. However, it would seem that the networks are wary of turning off viewers, and instead focus on the romantic aspects of gold mining, as well as the struggles of the everyday man in order to keep viewers coming back every week.


Works Cited


Bibel, Sara. "Discovery Unveils 2012-13 Upfront Slate Including 4 New Series and 12 Returning    Series."

TV By the Numbers. Zap2it. 5 April 2012. Web. 30 April 2012


Coil, David, McKittrick, Erin, Higman, Bretwood. "Alaska Metals Mining."

           Ground Truth Trekking. 19 April 2012. Web. 30 April 2012.

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As an avid watcher of the Discovery Channel, I can attest to the fact that romanticizing Alaska is both easy and good television. The manner in which TV shows like Flying Wild Alaska," "Ice Road Truckers," "Gold Rush" and "Bering Sea Gold" focus on character development really emphasizes the individual, which is what pioneering is all about and what keeps the American audience coming back for more. However, like Anthony had pointed out, there are definitely environmental issues with mining gold in Alaska, but are they any different from the environmental issues created by mining in the Mid-West, probably not. Moreover, the relationship between ignoring environmental issues and selling a romanticized frontier seems to have been going on for much longer than any reality television show has. How much more American can you get—turning a cheek to an issue than may not immediately impact you, just to earn a buck. Having said that, I’m not condoning the fact that television seems to be ignoring the issues with mining in Alaska, but it’s like being upset with Louis L’Amour for writing Silver Canyon, because he didn’t shed light fracking. I don’t think the issue is in the television shows, but rather than most people aren’t willing to do the research for themselves.

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