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Underground Cities And 'Ghost' Miners: What Some People Do For Gold

Gold is assumed to have eternal, inherent value, but what makes it valuable? And what determines its value now that it's no longer the basis of our currency? In the book Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal, journalist Matthew Hart examines the new gold rush driven by investors. He travels to gold mines — including the Mponeng mine in South Africa, where he descended into the deepest man-made hole on Earth — and investigates why gold and crime sometimes go hand in hand.

"There's always some sort of cultism attached to gold," Hart tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It has a grip on people's imagination that other substances don't. It seems to be ordained to be this valuable commodity."

Interview Highlights

On South Africa's Mponeng mine

It produces about a billion dollars worth of gold a year, so it's a big and prosperous mine. It's not one of the biggest mines in the world — the biggest mines are in the Carlin Trend in Nevada ... but it's an important mine.

One of the things that says a lot about the price of gold today is that this huge structure, this whole underground city, exists to mine a seam of ore 30 inches wide. I mean, that's the width of the seam, and to get that they have this huge structure there.

On Mponeng's record-breaking depth

It's about 2.5 miles deep, and it is, in fact, a hellish place to work. But I'll give you a couple of facts. ...

If you were standing at the bottom of that mine and looking towards the top, you would have towering above you a swath of ground and tunnels and chutes ... about the size of Manhattan, taken from Midtown to the top of Central Park. ... And every morning, 4,000 men piled into it and go down into, many of them, to the very deepest levels to work.

On the heat inside Mponeng

When you descend into the earth, the temperature rises according to an effect called the geothermal gradient, and at the deepest levels of the mine it's 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the rock face. That's the temperature of the rock, so you can imagine what it's like to crawl into a cavity there — it's like crawling into a pizza oven. ...

Matthew Hart's other books include <em>Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession</em> and <em>The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art</em>.
Peter Hart / Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Matthew Hart's other books include Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession and The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art.

In order to make it bearable, they have this ice-making plant on the surface that makes 6,000 tons of ice a day. They mix it with salt and it becomes this kind of slushy slurry, and they pump it down into these pipes into a deep reservoir that sits there. Giant fans blow air over it, and the cold air descends down these registers into the deepest mining levels and reduces the temperature to a bearable, probably, 85 degrees.

On the illegal, or "ghost," miners who steal from the Mponeng mine

They spend such a long time underground ... that their skin turns gray. They get this ghostly pallor and the reason they stay down for a long time is that it's very difficult to get in and out. Even though they [have] infiltrated [past] the mine's security, it's still not a cake walk.

The reason that they get past the mine security is that these people are employed by criminal syndicates — very, very powerful criminal syndicates that control an absolute circus of gold mine theft in South Africa. ... They steal ore from there; they refine it inside the tunnel, usually using very, very toxic methods, like mercury, which no doubt poison them. ... Security isn't very keen to go looking for these people because, in a mine, you can hear someone coming a long way off, and these people are armed and they wouldn't hesitate to shoot security and get into gunfights. ...

There's this huge amount of theft going on. At least 10 percent, and probably more like 20 percent, of the available ore at gold mines in South Africa is stolen. That is about $2 billion worth a year, certainly with a lot of collaboration, including the police.

On how legitimate miners benefit from the presence of illegal miners

The illegal miners who are also sapping away at the mine, they are a source of revenue for the legitimate workforce of the mine, because it's those miners who are allowed to be there ... who supply them. A loaf of bread that costs less than $1 on the surface costs $12 underground. Making a couple of extra sandwiches and putting them in your lunch bucket, you can make some serious extra money.

On the end of the gold standard in 1971

As prosperity increased around the world, America[ns] started to buy more foreign products — think of German cars and Japanese electronics. So you have United States dollars leaving the United States and going into foreign banks because we're paying them for their goods.

However, the reverse wasn't happening. Foreigners weren't finding American products that they wanted to buy, and that meant surplus dollars were building up in foreign banks, and finally they cashed them in for gold. They'd say, "I don't need these billions of U.S. dollars. I'm going to take half of them back to Washington and get the gold and take the gold back." ...

By the time Richard Nixon came to power, the United States gold reserve — which had been 20,000 tons — was down to about 8,000 tons. It was a headline story. The United States was hemorrhaging gold. ... They had to do something, and they did. Nixon killed the gold standard, and that was the end of it. From that moment on, when you had a dollar bill, that's what you had — one U.S. dollar.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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