Long-overdue rules will help protect fish and public health from mercury,
but leave other mine pollutants without emission limits
JOINT RELEASE: Alaskan Community Action on Toxics * EARTHWORKS * Northern Alaska Environmental Center
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 — The Environmental Protection Agency today issued long-overdue rules to limit mercury air pollution from gold mines, for the first time bringing a significant source of a dangerous neurotoxin in Americans' diets under the authority of the Clean Air Act. The new rule did not include limits for other hazardous mining air pollution like cyanide and arsenic.
Most airborne mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, but emissions from gold mines account for about 10 percent, or 2,775 pounds, according to figures compiled from the EPA's 2009 Toxic Release Inventory by EARTHWORKS, an international mining reform group. Even the smallest amounts of mercury are extremely dangerous to the developing brains of infants and children.
EARTHWORKS welcomed the action as an important advance — especially coming just a week after the EPA postponed issuing new rules for mercury emissions from industrial boilers in the face of Congressional opposition. EPA was authorized to limit mercury emissions by amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, but action has been delayed by fierce industry opposition.
“It s high time the gold industry is required to limit mercury emissions that have long been a danger to children s health,” said Bonnie Gestring, EARTHWORKS' Circuit Rider, who is based in Missoula, Montana. “The industry has been enjoying record profits, while releasing needlessly high amounts of mercury pollution.”
With gold topping $1,400 an ounce, the U.S. top gold producers have reported record-level profits in 2010. Barrick Gold and Newmont reported third quarter 2010 net profits of $837 million and $537 million, respectively.
According to the EPA, in 2008 fish consumption warnings were in effect for more than 16 million acres of lakes and 1.3 million miles of rivers because of mercury contamination — a 19 percent increase in lake contamination and 42 percent increase for rivers from 2006.
“It is vital to protect the health of subsistence fishing communities,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, emphasizing the vulnerability of Alaska Native communities living in the Kuskokwim River watershed where Barrick Gold Corp. and NovaGold Resources are planning to build the Donlin Creek Mine. “Fish makes up 60 percent of the diet for people in the Kuskokwim region, and mercury levels are already elevated, so it's essential that strong, enforceable federal standards are set, given the gaps in Alaska law.”
Pete Dronkers of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center agreed: “Unfortunately, the mine will inevitably lead to increased mercury emissions in the region, but without this rule it would be far worse. We commend the EPA for taking action.”
The new regulations allow 84 pounds of mercury emissions for new mines — for every million tons of ore processed for mines using autoclaves and roasters. This would apply to Donlin Creek. The new rules would allow more for existing sources and other, less significant, new sources. Mercury air emissions in Alaska currently total just 71 pounds for all industrial sources, according to EPA figures.
Of the 12 largest emitters of mercury air pollution among U.S. gold mines (see table below), 8 are in Nevada, the third-largest producer of gold in the world. In 2006, Nevada adopted rules requiring gold mines to use pollution scrubbers and filters.
“Because the Nevada rules mandate the use of specific technology and the EPA rules set limits on emissions, it remains to be seen how much this will further reduce mercury air pollution in the state,” said Dr. Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. “But the new rules are important because they provide nationwide standards.”
Health officials in Idaho blame Nevada for mercury contamination at fishing reservoirs near the border between the two states. In Utah, concentrations of mercury in the Great Salt Lake are as much as 25 times higher than levels that trigger fish consumption advisories elsewhere. Although there are no fish in the Great Salt Lake, mercury is a threat to the millions of waterfowl who migrate through the area, as well as people who eat the game.
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