Testimony to be given by PLAN Executive Director Bob Fulkerson to the Nevada Legislative Joint Committee on Natural Resources on Tuesday February 12, 2013
Mining’s Toxic Legacy
Any lingering doubts about mining’s toxic legacy should be dismissed in light of recent actions by federal regulators against Nevada’s gold mining industry.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) showing that in 2011, mining counted for 98% of the of 529 million pounds of toxic chemicals that were dumped released into Nevada’s land, water and air. The massive quantities of earth moved for mining — and the exposure of elements and compounds once safely underground and separated from air and water — starts a chemical chain reaction of long-term, and in fact unending, pollution to our streams, rivers and lakes. Mining has released more toxics than any industrial sector by a wide margin, for decades. But while other industries, abiding new regulations, have begun to lower their pollution levels, the pollution of the under-regulated mining industry continues to increase.
Shortly after the TRI report, the Environmental Protection Agency caught Barrick Gold lying about under-reporting the amount of toxics it had released in Nevada, assessing a fine of. $618,000.
The mining industry’s under-reporting of toxic releases is not new. The Idaho Statesman reported five years ago:
“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.”
As a result, Nevada Division of Environmental Protection took the unprecedented action of shutting down the mine until it installed better mercury emission control equipment.
We might never know how many other mines are currently or have in the past under-reported mercury emissions. According to the NDEP:
“In Nevada the largest source of atmospheric mercury is caused from processing gold through precious metal mines operations. Once mercury is released into the atmosphere through smokestacks and processing emissions, it can travel long distances, settle on soil and wash into lakes and rivers.
Mercury in lakes and rivers is converted into methyl mercury by certain bacteria. Fish ingest methyl mercury by swimming or feeding in contaminated water. Methyl mercury accumulates in fish tissue and is carried up the food chain to larger fish, animals and humans. Methyl mercury is dangerous because the concentration of methyl mercury increases as it goes up the food chain.”
What we do know is that shortly after EPA fined Barrick, it turned its attention on Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. EPA called on the state agency to list an additional 19 streams, lakes, rivers, including Ruby and Comins Lakes, the Owyhee River, Wildhorse and South Fork Reservoirs to the methyl mercury fish warning list.
As a result of mercury contamination from Nevada’s mines, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has issued Methyl Mercury Health Advisories for more than 90% of Nevada waters. Some of these water bodies were contaminated from historic mining on the Comstock when we didn’t know any better. But others were added more recently, in large part because of the massive amounts of mercury Nevada mines are pumping out.
Between 2006-2011, Nevada mines reported emitting into our air 20,215 pounds of mercury compounds. Guess where they end up? In our fish, in our kids and in us, as well as our neighbors in Idaho andUtah. Is this how mining is supposed to work for Nevada?
I used to live on the Tonkin Ranch, and every day we’d catch and eat Rainbow trout from the Tonkin Reservoir. Today, thanks to modern mining, if you eat more than one Rainbow per week from there you’re in danger of mercury contamination. That is mining’s toxic legacy for Nevada.
With the price of gold approaching $1,700 per ounce, we can expect many more massive gold mining operations and increased production, with attendant increases in the amount of mercury and other toxics released into our air, precious water supplies and public lands. We recognize that mercury air emissions from thermal sources have been reduced, compared to what was emitted 10 years ago, but there is still a long way to go, particularly from fugitive emissions.
Would we applaud a husband who now only beats his wife 3 instead of 5 times a week? No. We call for full regulation, monitoring and reporting of the large amount of additional fugitive mercury emissions from sources currently neither recognized nor monitored by NDEP: tailings impoundments and heaps. The industry should be challenged to develop ways of reducing emissions from these and other sources.
Based on research conducted at UNR, we now know that mercury emissions from tailings facilities and active heap leach operations now probably double the amount of mercury being released into the air, compared to that reported under NDEP requirements The technology exists to decrease mercury air pollution from these sources, but neither the mining industry or the NDEP seems to care.
We rightfully market our state as one of incredible natural beauty and unparalleled outdoor opportunities. But how are we going to lure anglers and other outdoor tourists here when they learn that, because of methyl mercury contamination from Nevada’s mines, the Department of Wildlife has placed fish consumption limits on all but seven out of 116 waters in eastern and western Nevada? And how much worse will it be 25, 50 or 100 years from now after Barrick and Newmont have left Nevada, and all we have to show for their presence here are massive pits, undrinkable water and contaminated fish?
It’s well past time to take a hard look at the colossal legacy of toxic pollution being created every day in Nevada by a handful of companies, and high time to control it.