MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining - the biggest toxic polluter in USA

Published by MAC on 2003-06-30

Mining - the biggest toxic polluter in USA

Once again, the Bush administration is under fire for failing to agree to proposed new international standards for mercury reduction. It is also supporting the domestic coal industry in the face of overhwelming evidence of the dangers of mercury missions from coal-fired plants

What's more, the US administration is allowing mining companies to forgo the reporting of toxic chemicals present in their waste rock dumps. This, say critics, could result in the concealment of evidence of up to half the pollution caused by the mining industry.

Although the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that US toxic releases decreased in 2001, this ignores the lower thresholds being applied to a variety of injurious chemicals.

In 2001, as in previous years, the mining industry proved to be the biggest single source of toxic releases in the country, with copper, zinc, lead and mercury posing the heaviest risks.

Rio Tinto once again was the country's biggest single toxic culprit - due to its huge Bingham Canyon mine in Utah (also the state with the highest levels of pollution). Second in line came Cominco's Red Dog mine in Alaska, with Barrick running third, thanks to its Goldstrike operations in Nevada.

Here we post a summary of the TRI (Toxi Releases Inventory) of the EPA and a TRI report on the recent court case which, while confirming more stringent conditions for emissions reporting from mines, also permlts the lowering of a critical threshold chemicals in waste rock.

EPA Says Toxic Releases, Wastes Declined in 2001

By J.R. Pegg, Environmental News Service (ENS)

June 30, 2003

Washington, DC - U.S. industries released 15 percent fewer toxic chemicals and generated 22 percent less toxic waste in 2001 than they did a year earlier, according to new data released today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency says these figures illustrate a continuing decline in the amount of wastes released into the nation's air, land and water, but environmentalists caution that the EPA's data only provides part of the picture.

The data was collected under the framework of the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), established by Congress in 1986 as the nation's community right to know program. It finds that U.S. industries released some 6.16 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment and managed 26.7 billion pounds of toxic waste in 2001.

The TRI includes information on releases and other waste management methods for 667 toxic chemicals. Although this total is less than one percent of chemicals registered for use and represents a limited range of sources, the TRI is widely considered the most comprehensive source of information on toxic pollution in the United States. The TRI program is "one of the most important activities EPA completes each year," according to Acting EPA Administrator Linda Fisher. "It is a tool that gives the American public information on chemical releases for their communities so that they can make informed decisions about protecting their environment.," said Fisher in a prepared statement.

Environmentalists welcome the insights provided by the Toxics Release Inventory, but caution that it has large gaps in information.

The data collected under the TRI program are based on reports from manufacturing industries, metal mines, certain coal mining activities, electrical utilities that burn coal or oil, hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities, chemical wholesale distributors, petroleum bulk plants and terminals and solvent recovery services.

It does not include releases from pollution sources like oil wells, airports and waste incinerators, or other sources of exposure to chemicals, such as chemicals placed in consumer products.

Of the 6.16 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment in 2001, 65 percent were released to land on and off site, 27 percent were released into the air, four percent to water and four percent to underground injection on- and off-site.

Mining biggest toxic source

The metal mining industry reported the largest total release of toxic chemicals, accounting for 45 percent of the nation's total, followed by the electric utilities industries with 17 percent and the chemical industry with 9.5 percent. Nevada released some 783 million pounds of toxic chemicals, more than any other state. Utah was second with 767 million pounds, followed by Arizona with 607 million pounds and Alaska with 522 million pounds.

Twenty chemicals accounted for 88 percent of the total release, with copper compounds totaling some one billion pounds and zinc compounds some 960 million pounds. Some 422 million pounds of lead and lead compounds were released in 2001 - the first year facilities were held to a 100 pound threshold for lead.

The standard requirement for industries subject to the TRI is that any facility manufacturing or processing 25,000 pounds of a chemical regulated under TRI, or otherwise using 10,000 pounds of such a chemical, has to report its releases and wastes.

But the standards are stricter for a group of some 20 persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) chemicals, which are considered more hazardous as they remain in ecosystems for long periods of time, and accumulate in animal and human tissues.

Lower thresholds

The threshold for reporting of PCB chemicals, which dioxins, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and others, was lowered in 1999 to 10 pounds or 100 pounds.

In 2001, total PBT chemical releases totaled 454.4 million pounds, with lead and lead compounds comprising 97 percent of the total. Environmentalists note that with the lower threshold, much of the reported lead represents previously unreported pollution.

"It is a victory for the public interest that these companies are finally reporting their lead pollution," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "We have known for centuries that lead is highly toxic, and more study has only shown that it is more toxic, and toxic at lower and lower exposure levels. It is now the 21st century, and high time for these companies to start reducing their use of lead."

Absent lead, PBT chemicals decreased by some two percent compared to last year, despite a 50 percent increase in the total releases of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds. In today's prepared statement, the EPA wrote that the overall long term trend is that levels of dioxin are decreasing and suggests that the increase in 2001 was in part due to one time maintenance at several facilities.

Toxic wastes

The reporting industries managed a total of 26.7 billion pounds of toxic waste, with Texas, Louisiana and Illinois accounting for 30 percent of nation's total.

The chemical industry was responsible 40 percent of the nation's toxic waste, with the primary metals industry accounting for 12 percent and the metals mining industry for 11 percent.

Some 1.68 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air in 2001. Lead and lead compounds accounted for 96 percent of the 1.23 billion pounds of PBT related waste. The 22 percent decrease in toxic waste of from 2000 to 2001 comes on the heels of a 25 percent increase from 1999 to 2000.

Mercury is one toxic that increased from 2000 to 2001 both in totals released and managed. The EPA reports that 4.9 million pounds of mercury and mercury compounds were released into the environment and 5.8 million pounds of mercury contaminated wastes were managed in 2001, compared to 4.3 million pounds released and 4.9 million pounds managed in 2000.

This finding comes as environmentalists and some Democrats continue to criticize the Bush administration for its "Clear Skies" initiative, which they believe would relax federal efforts to curb mercury pollution. There is increasing evidence that mercury poses health risks to pregnant women and their children.

Mining let out?

Some fear that some pollution from the mining industry might not be included in future TRI reports, as the Bush administration is not fighting a judge's decision to allow mining companies to stop reporting non PBT toxic chemicals in waste rock if they do not exceed a concentration of one percent.

"We expect that the Bush administration's decision will allow the nation's most toxic industry to just stop reporting half their pollution," said Baumann. "But half of 2.8 billion pounds is hardly trifling. EPA should issue new rules eliminating the exemption or clarifying that it cannot be used to hide millions of pounds of pollution." The entire TRI database is available and searchable at

UN Committee Recommends Stricter Mercury Limits

Environmental News Service (ENS)

June 30, 2003

New York, New York, - A joint United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) food safety committee called last week for a tougher standard for levels of mercury in food. The committee said the revised standard, which is nearly twice as strict as the existing world health exposure standard, is merited because of growing evidence of health risks from mercury to pregnant women and children. The recommendation came from 48 scientists from 17 countries who participated in the 61st meeting of the Joint Expert Committee for Food Additives and Contaminants (JECFA), which was established in 1956 to provide safety and risk assessment advice.

The primary health risk from mercury emerges when airborne mercury falls into surface waters where it can accumulate in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water transform mercury into methylmercury, which fish absorb when they eat aquatic organisms and humans absorb when they eat fish.

Scientists have shown that methylmercury can cause brain and nerve damage and studies indicate children and women of childbearing age are at a disproportionate risk. The experts reevaluated previous JECFA risk assessments for methyl mercury and recommended that the Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake be cut to 1.6 micrograms per kilograms of bodyweight - nearly half the original standard of 3.3 micrograms per kilogram.

Advocates for stricter mercury standards hailed the move and used the recommendations as ammunition against the Bush administration's refusal to support international and domestic actions to tighten standards. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) weekly standard is 2.8 micrograms per kilogram. "The new WHO recommendations are more reflective of the latest science on methlymercury exposure risks," said Michael Bender, of the Mercury Policy Project and representative of the Ban Mercury Working Group, a coalition of 28 groups around the world working on mercury issues.

The FDA continues to "lag behind with an outdated and indefensible standard," said Bender, that allows millions pregnant mothers and children to "unnecessarily be exposed to methylmercury at unsafe levels."

The JEFCA did, however, stress that when providing advice to consumers and setting consumption limits, public health authorities should keep in mind that fish play a key role in meeting nutritional needs in many countries. Fisheries products are the world's most common source of protein and the FAO predicts worldwide demand will increase from some 16 kilograms (35.2 pounds) today to some 19 to 21 kilograms (41.8 to 46.2 pounds) by 2030. Predatory fish - such as sharks, swordfish and large tuna - tend to have higher levels of methylmercury.

The recommendations for tighter mercury standards comes a few months after the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP determined there were sufficient adverse effects from global mercury pollution to warrant international action.

But objections from the U.S. delegation prevented the Governing Council from adopting binding limits on emissions from power plants and other major mercury sources. Although mercury is a naturally occurring metal, most mercury pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels in the coal-fired power plants, waste disposal, industrial processes and mining. Current emissions of mercury add to the existing pool, which is continuously mobilized, deposited on land and water, and remobilized.

Scientists believe mercury levels in the environment have increased three to five fold in the past century. The Bush administration is wary of placing strict regulation on mercury emissions from U.S. power plants, often noting that the United States is responsible for only about 12 percent of global mercury emissions.

But environmentalists believe the United States has the responsibility to take a leadership role on the issue and criticize the administration for not acting aggressively to reduce U.S. emissions.

"These new stringent health numbers from WHO serve as a clarion call to the Bush administration to aggressively tackle the major sources of mercury pollution," said Linda Greer, director of the Public Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Greer says the administration is using administrative rulemaking processes to undermine other efforts to address mercury generated by the auto recycling industry, the chemical industry and the coal industry.

These rules are in addition to the administration's air pollution plan - known as "Clear Skies" - which critics say would impose weaker mercury standards on power plants than those mandated by the Clean Air Act.

Coal-fired plants are the nation's largest source of mercury emissions, spewing out some 50 tons of the toxic metal each year.

Yet these plants are exempt from clean air standards - the other two large sources of mercury, which are medical and municipal waste incinerators, are tightly regulated and U.S. emissions have been reduced by more than 90 percent since 1990.

But under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is mandated to issue "maximum achievable control technology" standards for coal-fired power plants, with compliance by the end of 2007. In December 2001, EPA said these standards could reduce mercury emissions from power plants by some 90 percent, reducing the total to some five tons by 2007. The administration says Clear Skies would reduce mercury emissions more efficiently, by installing a cap of 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018.

Bush administration officials, and the coal fired power plant industry, believe that the technology to cut mercury emissions is unproven and too expensive to be forced upon the industry at this time.

Some Republican Senators have already argued that even the timetable in Clear Skies is too aggressive and will be too costly to the industry.

Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program

EPA Analysis of Decision in Barrick Goldstrike Mines, Inc. v. Whitman

On April 2, 2003, Judge Thomas P. Jackson of the District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in Barrick Goldstrike Mines, Inc. v. Whitman, (Civ. Action No. 99-958 (TPJ)), regarding the TRI reporting obligations of mining facilities. The decision discussed four issues...

Intra-Category Manufacture: The Court upheld EPA's interpretation that the creation of one member of a toxic chemical category from another member of the same toxic chemical category constitutes a reportable "manufacture" of the toxic chemical category. This means that if, during beneficiation "naturally occurring" copper sulfide is transformed into copper oxide, you must consider the amount of copper oxide created as manufactured and apply this amount toward the manufacturing threshold for copper ompounds. In addition, if the copper oxide is further prepared for distribution in commerce, you must also report the entire amount of copper oxide created in the process stream (e.g., the leach pad) as processed.

Reporting on Toxic Chemicals in Tailings: The Court upheld EPA's interpretation that, because tailings are separated from the rocess stream as a byproduct they are not eligible for the de minimis exemption. Therefore, if a threshold is exceeded for a toxic chemical in tailings (including a "naturally occurring" toxic chemical), all release and other waste management activities for that chemical must be reported.

Reporting of Impurities: The Court's opinion is limited to the reporting of "naturally occurring" impurities. Therefore, you must continue to report the impurities that you have manufactured, e.g., via intra-category production (either intentionally or coincidentally) as manufactured and as processed if they are prepared for distribution in commerce. When reporting the amount of an impurity as processed, report the entire amount of the impurity in the process stream (e.g., the leach pad), not merely the amount actually distributed.

In addition, if the toxic chemical impurities are "naturally occurring" - those chemicals that are in exactly the same form as they were when they were extracted from the ground - the facility may still have reporting obligations. EPA defines beneficiation as a preparatory activity and the plain language of EPCRA requires facilities to report on their preparatory activities. Until EPA completes its upcoming rulemaking on certain preparatory activities, individual mining facilities will remain responsible for determining whether their preparation of toxic chemicals in ore is better characterized as "manufacturing"or "processing." Finally, if a threshold is exceeded and toxic chemical impurities are released (e.g., the toxic hemicals in the leach pad when the leach pad is retired) or otherwise managed as waste, they must be reported regardless of whether they are manufactured or "naturally occurring" (assuming no exemptions apply).

Reporting on Toxic Chemicals in Waste Rock: Although "naturally occurring" toxic chemicals in waste rock are not exempt from TRI reporting obligations, the Court determined that non-PBT chemicals present in the waste rock below concentrations of 1% (or 0.1% for OSHA carcinogens) are eligible for the de minimis exemption. Note, however, that concentrations of certain toxic chemicals in waste rock may be above de minimis levels for certain mining facilities.

62 Fed. Reg. 23834, 23858-59 (May 1, 1997).

If you would like to ask a facility-specific question about the impact of the Court's order, please contact Larry Reisman (202.566.0751) or Marc Edmonds (202.566.0758), both staff of the TRI Program.

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