Toxic mercury blows north into Idaho
Conservation League asks EPA to investigate whether Nevada mine bypassed its pollution control equipment
By Rocky Barker - email@example.com
Edition Date: 06/10/07
A gold mine in Nevada may be the nation's top single source of airborne mercury, and the prevailing winds are carrying the pollutant to Idaho.
The owners of Jerritt Canyon Mine near Elko, Nev., had claimed to have voluntarily cut 97 percent of mercury emissions between 1998 and 2005. The pollutant falls into water and accumulates in fish and can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in babies and young children.
But tests conducted as part of Nevada's new mandatory mercury control program in 2006 showed emissions near 1998's levels. At 9,300 pounds per year, the mine would emit more than 90 times the annual emissions from a coal-fired power plant like the one rejected by Idaho officials near Jerome in 2006.
The Idaho Conservation League told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a May 17 letter that based on the state's tests, the company may have intentionally routed emissions around its pollution control equipment.
Nevada Division of Environmental Quality officials are investigating the allegations and have asked Queenstake Resources, owners of the Jerritt Canyon Mine, to retest the gold mine's ore roasters.
"There are a number of serious questions raised, and we're looking into it," said Dante Pistone, a spokesman for the Nevada enforcement agency.
Queenstake officials issued a statement Thursday denying any wrongdoing.
"The recent assertions by the Idaho Conservation League regarding bypassing the stacks are without basis and are false," the company said in the statement.
Queenstake has a scheduled mine shutdown Monday for complete overhaul — including its emissions system, said Russ Fields, executive director of the Nevada Mining Association.
Idaho's mercury monitoring program discovered in 2005 that mercury levels in the air south of Twin Falls rose 30 percent to 70 percent higher than normal when winds blew from the southwest, where Jerritt Canyon and four other gold mines are located. Mercury is released in the processing of gold ore.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality program also found higher than normal mercury levels in Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir near the Nevada border. The lake is the Idaho's top walleye fishing spot.
The Nevada tests showed that larger-than-expected portions of the emissions were reactive gaseous mercury, which drops from the atmosphere closer to the source — several hundred miles — instead of traveling long distances and adding to the worldwide mercury problem. Jerritt Canyon is the mine closest to the Idaho border.
"Companies like Queenstake are putting mercury in our air, and it's coming down in our lakes and streams and contaminating our fish, which are eaten by our families," said Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League.
Nevada mines in 2002 accounted for 11 percent of all mercury emitted by industry nationwide. But the EPA doesn't have specific rules for regulating mercury emissions from mines.
Developing such rules takes up to 10 years, Pistone said. That's why four of Nevada's mines, including Jerritt Canyon, which are responsible for 98 percent of the mercury released there, voluntarily reduced mercury emissions — from more than 15,000 pounds annually in 2002 to 4,000 pounds in 2004 — under a program in conjunction with the EPA.
Nevada, under pressure from Idaho and Utah officials and the ICL, made the program mandatory in 2006. It required all mines that emitted major levels of mercury to use the best available technology for cutting emissions.
The first enforcement order under the law came in February against Queenstake because of leaks found in the mine's ore processing facilities that prevented some mercury emissions from reaching its pollution control devices.
The state issued a laundry list of actions required to bring the mine into compliance, including fixing the leaks. The company could face $10,000 a day in fines and more.
"Failure to meet any of the conditions listed above shall result in the immediate shutdown of all ore processing facilities at Jerritt Canyon," Michael Elges, chief of the Nevada agency's air pollution control bureau wrote.
Queenstake officials in its statement said the company is cooperating with the state and plans to spend $500,000 this year to upgrade its pollution control equipment.
"The health and safety of our employees and our communities is paramount in our operations," the company said in the statement.