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Conservation Groups Urge EPA to Investigate Nine More Mines

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated enforcement action at the Gold Quarry and Jerritt Canyon Mines after investigations found serious problems with the handling and disposal of hazardous waste. The notices of violation went to mine owners Newmont and Queenstake (now Yukon-Nevada Gold Corp.). According to the EPA's investigation, the mines:

  • failed to identify toxic materials as hazardous waste, particularly mercury-contaminated waste water.
  • failed to meet treatment standards for hazardous waste, including wastes containing mercury and arsenic.
  • generated and stored hazardous waste without a permit.
  • failed to minimize the release of hazardous waste to the air or water that could threaten human health or the environment.

The EPA found that the mines were putting mercury-contaminated waste water from their air pollution controls into unlined tailings dams, where the mercury could be released back into the environment. The situation at the Jerritt Canyon Mine was particularly egregious, because the company was dumping its mercury into a tailings pond that has leaked into groundwater since the early 1980s.

“These mines are acting irresponsibly, putting public health at risk, and creating a long-term liability for the State.” said Dan Randolph, Executive Director of Great Basin Resource Watch. “The mining industry is once again leaving a poisonous legacy by not managing the mercury at their mines in ways that protect the public in the long-term.”

The report also demonstrates a significant discrepancy between investigations conducted by the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) and the EPA. The State completed investigations at the Jerritt Canyon Mine just three months before the EPA, yet found no violations, and an investigation of the Gold Quarry mine by NDEP found just minor violations.

“We're encouraged that the EPA has stepped in to act when the State has not,” said Dr. Glenn Miller. “We have been concerned for several years about how the State is dealing with toxic mining wastes. Nevada mining is creating contaminated sites that will exist for a very long time.”

In a letter sent today, Great Basin Resource Watch and Earthworks urge the EPA to investigate additional mines to determine RCRA compliance.

“We are asking the EPA to do similar inspections at nine other mines in Nevada that produce over 100 pounds of mercury per year,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, a national conservation organization. “It's important to get a handle on the scope of the problem, and move to protect the public from harmful practices.”

The EPA investigations were initiated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the federal law which regulates the disposal of hazardous waste. Each mine generates more than 1,000 kg (2,204 pounds) of hazardous waste per month. The EPA has notified the mines that they must come into compliance, and provide verification to the agency. Violations of RCRA may be punishable by penalties of up to $32,500 per violation per day.