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A recent U.S. Geological Survey revealed pervasive mercury contamination in nearly 300 streams nationwide. While national attention has focused primarily on establishing mercury pollution limits for coal-fired power plants, another major source of mercury pollution to our Western waters has been largely overlooked: gold mining.

Note: This piece appeared in full as an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune on 9/11/09.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found pervasive mercury contamination in nearly 300 streams across the nation. Every single fish the agency examined tested positive for mercury contamination. Today, every state except Wyoming has issued public health advisories warning people to limit their intake of fish because of concerns about mercury exposure.

Fish consumption advisories are now in effect for 15 bodies of water in Utah. Unfortunately, the water quality of the Great Salt Lake tops the list with twice the level of mercury as the national average. Although the lake’s saline waters do not support fish, waterfowl consumption advisories have been issued for three species of ducks that feed in the lake’s marshes.

While national attention has focused primarily on establishing mercury pollution limits for coal-fired power plants, another major source of mercury pollution to our Western waters has been largely overlooked. That culprit is the nation’s gold mining industry, the center of which is in northern Nevada, upwind of the Great Salt Lake. For decades, gold mines there have released tons of mercury into the air, where it can travel considerable distances before rain and snow eventually bring it back to the ground and into lakes and streams.

The Newmont Twin Creeks Mine alone released 1,800 pounds of mercury into the air in 2008. This is an increase of 800 pounds since the previous year, and the equivalent of emissions from about seven average-sized coal-fired power plants. Individually, gold mines can be large sources of mercury air pollution, yet there are no federal regulations that require these mines to reduce emissions.

Nevada is the only state to develop mercury regulations for gold mines. Yet even Nevada, where the majority of the nation’s gold mines are found, has been lax about its protections. Regulations enacted in 2006 focus entirely on mercury coming from smokestacks but ignore mercury emissions from the vast mountains of ore and waste ponds.

In addition, Nevada allows mining companies to police themselves, with minimal independent oversight to make sure that the public receives accurate information about how much mercury is released. Already there have been serious reporting discrepancies. Moreover, a 2008 Environmental Protection Agency investigation found that a number of gold mines were taking the mercury captured in their air pollution control devices and dumping it where it could be released into the environment.

Federal regulations are needed to address these gaps, and to provide a framework of protections for other Western states that have no regulations to address the problem. Establishing federal regulations that protect public health is particularly crucial for a state like Alaska, where native communities rely on subsistence fishing as their primary source of food. For these communities, eating fish is not a recreational pastime, but crucial to their life and livelihoods. The Alaska Intertribal Council recently passed a resolution urging the EPA to develop federal regulations.

It appears that federal regulations may finally be in the works. A court decision requires the EPA to start the rule-making process by Oct. 15. With new leadership at the helm, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the agency may finally be empowered to get the job done.

While other industries are suffering from the economic downturn, gold mines are enjoying hefty profits. With the price of gold soaring to almost $1,000 an ounce in recent years, now would be a good time to invest in additional pollution controls and more extensive monitoring to better protect the communities and wildlife downwind.

Exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems and impair a child’s ability to walk, talk and learn. Somewhere between 317,000 and 637,000 of the 4 million children born each year in the United States are exposed in the womb to mercury levels above the EPA’s safety threshold.

The risks are simply too great to keep putting off doing what is necessary to protect public health and to reduce the amount of mercury in our waters and wildlife.

Lynn de Freitas is executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake and lives in Salt Lake City. Maunsel Pearce , a retired physician in Holladay, is a member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Bonnie Gestring , a conservation director for Earthworks, works on national mining policy issues out of the organization’s field office in Missoula, Mont.