Unregulated Nevada mines spew mercury
The Idaho Statesman
30th October 2004
A handful of Idaho environmental officials want to monitor the air along the Nevada border to see if mercury pollution from 10 Nevada gold mines poses a threat to Idahoans' health.
Their concern comes five years after federal environmental regulators first learned the mines were among the nation's largest sources of mercury pollution, which threatens neurological damage, especially in young children, even at low levels. The mines remain unregulated.
Idaho Department of Environmental Quality officials didn't learn about the mines' pollution until 2003, when they began writing rules to protect Idaho water from mercury pollution. Now they hope to get air scientists from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to test the snow and monitor the air in the Jarbidge Mountains on the state line.
And, in a letter sent last week, a state-wide environmental group, the Idaho Conservation League, threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if EPA doesn't begin to regulate mercury pollution from gold mines.
Since 2001, the mines have been working with the EPA in a voluntary program to cut mercury emissions by half. In 2002, 10 mines in Nevada — seven in northern Nevada near Idaho — released 11 percent of all of the mercury air pollution nationwide.
The same year, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials warned anglers at Salmon Falls Reservoir on the Nevada border to limit how much fish they eat after discovering high levels of mercury. Similar advisories, telling pregnant women and children under 7 to eat only one fish meal a week and other people to eat only two fish meals a week, were in effect at Lake Lowell, C.J. Strike and Brownlee reservoirs downstream.
No unusual levels of mercury have been detected in the air by University of Nevada researchers, who began a monitoring program in 2003, but they note that emissions dramatically dropped last year due to the voluntary program with the EPA. Glenn Miller, a chemistry professor heading the monitoring effort, said their work doesn't show how much mercury may have been deposited in the decade the mines operated before monitoring began.
"We may never know if that mercury in southern Idaho is from Nevada mining," Miller said.
Justin Hayes, conservation director of the Idaho Conservation League, said he wants the Department of Health and Welfare to study health records across southern Idaho.
"We need to go into these communities and determine if gold mining in Nevada is poisoning children in Idaho," Hayes said.
Mercury poisoning is not a reportable disease, said Dick Schultz, administrator of the DHW's Idaho Division of Health. But even if it was, the neurological effects are hard to link to the mercury exposure.
"We don't know the extent people are being affected by mercury pollution," Schultz said.
Serious health effects
Mercury has long been known to be a deadly poison in higher doses. Methylmercury is the organic form that is the most toxic. In rivers and lakes, it moves up the food chain to concentrate at high levels in the flesh of fish.
Children of women exposed to relatively high levels of methylmercury during pregnancy show delayed onset of walking and talking, reduced neurological test scores, and delays and deficits in learning ability, according to EPA reports. Eight percent of women of childbearing age nationally have levels of mercury in their blood that exceed the level EPA considers safe, mostly because of fish contamination, the EPA said. EPA officials also say there is growing evidence that methylmercury exposure can have adverse cardiovascular effects for adults, resulting in elevated blood pressure and incidence of heart attack.
Most of the mercury emitted from the mines is elemental mercury, which is not as toxic. But it mixes in the atmosphere with other chemicals and is transformed through oxidation and other biological processes after it is deposited over the land into the more lethal methylmercury. It then washes into waterways at widely varying rates.
"The question is how quickly does it oxidize?" said Don Essig, Water Quality Standards Manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. "That's what we need to know to determine if these sources are affecting Idaho."
Federal officials only learned of the mines' pollution in 1998, when a federal law requiring companies to report toxic releases was extended to the mining industry.
Nationally, the major concern has been curbing mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, which emit an average of 250 pounds a year. One gold mine — the Jerritt Canyon mine near Elko — reported emitting 9,400 pounds in 1998, the largest source of mercury pollution in the nation. Together, four northern Nevada gold mines reported emitting 13,560 pounds.
The large releases surprised both regional EPA officials and the mining industry. The government had no regulatory program in place to address these huge sources. EPA could have developed regulations that established limits requiring the mines to install the maximum pollution control technologies available.
But that process would have taken years to complete and would have cost both the agency and industry millions of dollars, said David Jones, associate director for the EPA in San Francisco. Instead, EPA offered the companies a voluntary reduction program that it hoped would bring immediate benefits. It has.
Gary Goodrich, Jerritt Canyon's environmental manager, said until the Toxic Inventory Release program required miners to report, he didn't know the extent of mercury pollution they were sending into the air.
"I guess it was a testament to the value of the program," Goodrich said.
Jerritt has cut its mercury emissions to 800 pounds this year by installing scrubbers and changing the way it processes the ore. But it remains one of the nation's largest mercury polluters.
"We're still trying to work on reducing that 800 pounds," Goodrich said.
Overall, the voluntary program has been a big success, the EPA's Jones said. The mining companies are expected to exceed the goal of cutting emissions by half this year, down to at least 4,000 pounds, he said.
But that's not enough for the Idaho Conservation League. The League wrote EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt Oct. 21 demanding the EPA begin regulating the gold mining industry for mercury pollution, just as it does other industries.
ICL noted that the gold mining industry is the second-largest mercury polluting industry, next to coal-fire power plants. But while coal plants are spread across the nation, the largest gold mine polluters are concentrated in northern Nevada and present the greatest threat to Idaho.
The success of the voluntary program doesn't preclude going the regulatory route, the EPA's Jones said. But the agency has no plans at this time to establish industry-wide regulations, he said.
Brownlee Reservoir has had a mercury advisory since 1994. Biologists believed that historic mining in the Owyhees and elsewhere was the cause of its contamination. Lake Lowell also has an advisory, which is also suspected to be tied to historic mining up the Boise River. Salmon Falls and C.J. Strike reservoirs were added in 2002.
Kurt Schilling of Hagerman is an avid walleye fisherman in Salmon Falls Reservoir. He is aware of the advisory, but it doesn't stop him from enjoying frequent fish fries, though he doubts he eats more than advised. He is single without children.
"Some of the folks that have kids do think about it more readily," he said.
Farah Weppner, a health educator at DHW's Bureau of Environmental Health and Safety, said fish from the three reservoirs are safe to eat if people follow the advisories.
"Our advisories are very protective," she said.
DEQ's Essig is recommending in the rules the state seek a regional commission to address mercury pollution. He calls mercury a global problem that needs regional, national and worldwide programs to address.
UN-Reno's Miller said the current voluntary program only came because of pressure from environmental groups and the threat of legal liability. More action will take more pressure.
The ICL's Hayes wants Idaho officials to take the lead in protecting the state's residents from pollutants blowing across its borders.
"Wherever it's coming down, it's harming children, Hayes said. “ I'm concerned it's coming down in Idaho."
To get more information about toxics in our environment like mercury, go to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory Program page. The page includes a handy search engine you can use to look at each state, county, zip code and polluter. Go to: http://www.epa.gov/triexplorer/
To learn more about fish advisories in Idaho go to: http://www.healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/DesktopModules/Articles/ArticlesView.aspx?TabID=0&Alias=Rainbow&Lang=en-US&ItemID=601&mid=10333
To learn more about the effects of mercury, go to the EPA's fact page: http://www.epa.gov/mercury/
To comment to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality about mercury e-mail email@example.com
To contact Mike Leavitt, EPA Administrator, call 202-564-4700