MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Activists Claim Link Of Mines

Published by MAC on 2007-05-24
Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

Activists claim link of mines, mercury

They say a Nevada company doctored emissions systems, falsified reports of pollution

By Judy Fahys, The Salt Lake Tribune

24th May 2007

An Idaho environmental group is calling on federal regulators to investigate a Nevada gold-mining company for allegedly tampering with its mercury emissions and underreporting them.

Toxic emissions from the smokestacks of those mines are suspected as a culprit in the mercury pollution of Utah streams and lakes, especially in the Great Salt Lake, where the highest mercury counts in the nation have been measured.

Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League, called Queenstake Resources Ltd.'s handling of mercury data "criminal." In a letter urging government action last week, he said Queenstake had intentionally let mercury-tainted smoke leak so that the emissions measured at the end of the stack were recorded at misleadingly low levels.

"If that is really what happened," Hayes said, "they should have the book thrown at them."

Denver-based Queenstake did not return a call seeking comment on the allegation.

Limited funding has hampered Utah's efforts to learn how the Nevada mines have affected the Great Salt Lake. But there is a growing list of ducks and fish that now have consumption advisories in the state because of their high mercury contamination.

While some mercury may settle into Utah from upper atmosphere air that comes from China, coal-fired power plants in the West or leaching from old mines, Nevada's gold mines also have been identified as a likely source for Utah's mercury problems.

Hayes' group said details from a new mercury-monitoring program by Nevada environmental officials showed a steep decline in mercury when Queenstake bought the Jerritt Canyon operations in 2003. Its letter to EPA notes emissions were about 9,400 pounds in 1998, down to 381 in 2005 and back to 9,300 pounds, based on results of the new mandatory monitoring program started by Nevada last year.

"From what we can ascertain, it appears that operators at the facility had previously disconnected or redirected vents or ducts so that mercury emissions were allowed to bypass the stack for monitoring purposes," the League's letter says.

Dante Pistone, a spokesman for the Nevada environmental regulators, said his agency has "several concerns" with the allegations raised by the environmental group and sees no need for EPA to get involved. He noted that the agency, which announced an enforcement action against Queenstake in February, has ordered the company to correct the problems.

"We think we have a good handle on it," he said.

Cheryl Heying of the Utah Department of Air Quality agreed, but added that Utah is looking closely at Nevada's new testing program to understand how the gold mines might be affecting Utah.

"We're watching," she said.

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