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Mercury from gold mines can have serious public health effects


Washington, DC – The Environmental Protection Agency released the 2003 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data today, which documents gold mines as the largest source of mercury air emission in the tri-state region of Utah, Idaho and Nevada. These toxic emissions are largely released by mines that use ore roasters to process the gold. Under this process, the mercury residing in the ore is released into the air when the ore is heated to extract the gold. Although these ore roasters are located in Nevada, air emissions from these mines can travel great distances, affecting a broad geographic area, including neighboring states Idaho and Utah.

The Cortez Gold Mine, owned by the Canadian company Placer Dome, is the largest source of mercury in the area, reporting a releasing 1,378 pounds into the air in 2003. Barrick's Goldstrike mine reports a release of 1,057 pounds.

“Citizens should be concerned by Placer Dome and Barrick's air pollution,” says Justin Hayes, Program Director of the Idaho Conservation League. “Mercury from Nevada mining operations is traveling by air to Idaho and Utah. Clean air and water is disappearing into the Mercury Triangle.”

Mercury in the air eventually ends up in our nation's rivers and lakes where it travels up the food chain and becomes concentrated in the fish we eat. According to EPA's data, fish advisories for mercury in the United States cover more than 750,000 miles of rivers and streams and 13 million acres of freshwater lakes. Exposure to mercury can cause significant neurological and developmental problems, often expressing itself as attention and language deficits, impaired memory and impaired vision and motor function.

The National Mining Association's press release on this year's TRI data argues that mercury “occurs naturally in soils” and that much of the toxic chemicals reported to the EPA by the mining industry are “handled and managed at specially designed facilities on the mine site.” While mercury and other minerals do occur naturally in some soils, these toxics would never have been released into the air if not for the mining process. Modern mining operations are huge industrial operations, and the roasting process is just one of many that modern mining operations undertake to release gold from the surrounding rock.

Overall, the TRI reveals the hardrock mining industry as the nation's largest toxic polluter for the 8th year in a row: it released 1.25 billion pounds or 28% of all toxics released by U.S. industry.

Some mining companies in Nevada have undertaken a voluntary program to reduce mercury emissions. But, strict and enforceable regulations are needed to protect public health in the region. The EPA needs to develop clear and enforceable mercury emissions limitations for gold mining and processing facilities that better protect communities, water, and wildlife.

“These mining operations remain the single largest source of mercury emissions in Nevada,” says Elyssa Rosen, executive director of Great Basin Mine Watch. “The mining companies need to significantly reduce their mercury emissions to ensure that our children have the best chance for a healthy and productive life.”

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