Families on the front lines of mining, drilling, and fracking need your help. Support them now!

Comments cover letter:

June 28, 2010

Air and Radiation Docket and Information Center,
Environmental Protection Agency, Mail code: 2822T,
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20460

Attention: Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2010-0239

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed mercury air emission regulations for gold and silver processing facilities. These comments are submitted on behalf of EARTHWORKS, Great Basin Resource Watch, Montana Environmental Information Center, The Lands Council, The Spokane River Keepers, Rivers Without Borders, Friends of the Kalmiopsis, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Defenders of the Black Hills and Save Our Sky Blue Waters.

EARTHWORKS is a nonprofit organization working to protect communities and the environment against the adverse impacts of hardrock mining.

We commend the Environmental Protection Agency for initiating this important rule-making to develop MACT standards for gold and silver processing facilities. Given the significant public health effects related to mercury exposure, and the very large amounts of mercury released by some gold and silver mines, the development of federal MACT standards is an important step in reducing mercury air emissions from this industry.

EARTHWORKS has a number of comments on the proposed rule which are listed in greater detail below, but I would like to highlight our most significant concern.

The emission limits for pretreatment for new mines is set the same as the pretreatment emission limits for existing operations, and it would allow an unacceptably high level of mercury to be released into the air. For example, the proposed pretreatment emission limit (149 pounds/million ton) would allow the Donlin Creek Mine, proposed in southwest Alaska (at 22 million tons per year), to release more than 3,200 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere per year. This is 40 times more than the amount of mercury that is currently released into the air by all industries in Alaska!1 And, this does not account for the amount of mercury that will be released by other mine processes at Donlin.

We are particularly concerned that these emission limits are not protective of public health, particularly the subpopulations in the U.S. that consume higher than average amounts of fish. The Donlin Creek mine is an important example. This mine is located in the Kuskokwim River watershed, and the communities there rely on a subsistence diet high in fish — consuming up to 699 pounds of non-salmon fish species a year.2 The impact from additional mercury loading in this region is particularly troublesome given that the Kuskokwim River supports one of the largest subsistence fisheries in Alaska and Alaska Natives in the region rely on subsistence fishing for approximately 60% of their diet.

Mercury concentrations in fish tissue are already an issue in this region due to historic mercury mining. Thus, new sources of mercury air pollution are particularly a concern. According to a 1997 study of mercury concentrations in fish provided by subsistence fishermen who live in the lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, 16 of 66 fish contained mercury above the “level of concern” established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Overall, 24% of the fish exceed the critical value for human consumption and 58% the wildlife critical value.

Mercury exposure is a tremendous public health concern, particularly for children. Exposure to mercury can cause significant neurological and developmental problems such as attention and language deficits, impaired memory and impaired vision and motor function.

We urge the EPA to make changes in the draft regulations to better protect public health from existing and new sources of mercury air emissions. Our detailed comments on this element and other elements of the rule-making are below.

Thank you for considering our comments. With these comments, we also reference comments submitted by Center for Science and Public Participation, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Solutions Statistical Accounting.

Bonnie Gestring