Today, at long last, the first ever federal regulations go into effect that create emission limits for mercury air pollution from gold mining.
We became aware of the need for these regulations thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, which requires large polluters to publicly and annually report their pollution.
When the issue was initially identified in 1998, gold mining was the 2nd largest mercury air polluter after coal power plants. (Metal mining was and still is the largest total mercury polluter — by far — when you count land and water releases in addition to air.)
This is an important issue because mercury air pollution is very toxic. Children of women exposed to relatively high levels of methylmercury during pregnancy show delayed onset of walking and talking, reduced neurological test scores, and delays and deficits in learning ability.
In the United States, the number of states that have issued health advisories limiting consumption of fish has risen steadily from 27 states (899 advisories) in 1993, to 41 states (2,242 advisories) in 2000, and 45 states (2,362 advisories) in 2003. Over 750,000 river miles and 13 million acres of freshwater lakes in the U.S. are under a fish consumption advisory for mercury.
In fact, Nevada gold mines are a likely contributing factor to the mercury problem in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake, which are downwind from the Nevada gold mining, has the highest recorded mercury concentrations outside a laboratory.
These new regulations are particularly important for the proposed Donlin Creek Mine in Alaska. This mine is projected to be a large source of mercury air emissions, and the communities nearby rely on subsistence fishing as a primary source of food.