MAC: Mines and Communities

US mercury controls - debated and challenged

Published by MAC on 2009-06-16

A US mining company has been ordered to close down a gold "roaster" until it reduces the plant's emissions of mercury.

So far so good - but does it go far enough?

Some environmentalists claim that only a federal government programme will effectively control one of the two worst sources of ambient toxicity by this deadly metal (the other being coal-fired power plants.)

Jerritt Canyon closed down as debate on mercury emissions from gold mines escalate, US

Nevada tells gold mine to get mercury down


3rd June 2009

CARSON CITY, Nev -- Nevada environmental regulators have ordered a gold mine to shut down roasting operations until its operators install mercury reduction equipment.

The Jerritt Canyon Mine failed to meet the state deadline for installing equipment to reduce the release of mercury into the atmosphere, the Las Vegas Sun reports. The mine, operated by Queenstake Resources Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, Yukon-Nevada Gold Corp., was only recently allowed to reopen.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to determine whether it should set national standards for mercury emissions in gold mining operations or allow states to set their own.

Jill Lufrano, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Environmental Protection Division, said state officials believe Nevada can do the job. She said mercury emissions at the Jerritt Canyon Mine will be a fraction of the previous level once it complies with state requirements.

"Our program is successful," Lufrano said. "Do we need another program on top of our program? We don't think so."

Closing mine part of bigger battle

State wants to keep feds from regulating industry

Las Vegas Sun

3rd June 2009

Washington - A Northern Nevada gold mine that was recently allowed to reopen after being among the region's worst emitters of airborne mercury had its roasting operations halted recently by state regulators.

The company had failed to install state-mandated mercury reduction equipment on time.

The state's action came as federal regulators watch Nevada's new mercury control program and weigh whether to establish a nationwide program for reducing mercury emissions from gold mining.

The temporary shutdown at Jerritt Canyon Mine north of Elko raises questions anew:

Is the state's mercury regulation program sufficient or would a broader federal program better halt toxic emissions from Nevada's gold mines?

Justin Hayes, program director of the Idaho Conservation League, said the state should have never let the mine reopen until all the new equipment was installed.

Jerritt is operated by Queenstake Resources Inc., a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Yukon-Nevada Gold Corp.

"The decision to allow this company to turn on this roaster without installing this equipment first was clearly a wrong decision," Hayes said.

In industrial mining, roasting is the process of burning the ore to get at the gold.

Hayes' group blames Nevada's gold mines for polluting streams and contaminating fish with high mercury levels, making them unsuitable for eating. Mercury harms brain development, especially in children and fetuses.

Still, Hayes and other environmental groups appreciate the state's intervention. "At the very least, the state has shut them down - that's good," said John Hadder, director of the Reno-based Great Basin Resource Watch.

The Nevada Environmental Protection Division allowed the mine to reopen in late March contingent on the company's installing mercury reduction equipment by the end of May.

The state said the company has made great strides in reducing emissions from the site. State inspectors have been there monitoring the work as the company ramped up, said Jill Lufrano, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Division.

But the company said a delay in the fabrication of fiberglass duct-work needed for the new system left it unable to meet the deadline, according to a statement on Monday.

The roasters were shut down over the weekend, although other work continues, the company said.

Environmental groups estimate that since the mine reopened in March, several hundred pounds of toxic mercury could have escaped into the air. The state disputes that estimate because the site was not operating at full capacity and other emission reductions have been made, Lufrano said.

Nevada's regulators believe that once all the mercury emission devices are installed as required, the mine that once spewed four tons of mercury a year will emit no more than 175 pounds.

"Our program is successful," Lufrano said. "Do we need another program on top of our program? We don't think so."

"Things are not fixed overnight," she added. "But they are certainly fixed a lot faster at the state level than a federal program that might not fit Nevada."

Following a yearlong investigation, the state in 2008 ordered Jerritt to briefly shut down. The mine reopened a month later, in April, on the condition that it install mercury emissions control equipment by year's end.

By August, the mine voluntarily shut down without having made the changes. The company reported losing $105 million in 2008 because of the closure.

On March 25, 2009, the state allowed Jerritt to reopen provided emissions equipment was installed before last weekend. When it became clear the company could not meet that deadline, the state ordered the roasting operations to halt. The company expects to have the new equipment installed this month.

As part of a long-running clean air lawsuit, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce this summer whether it will draft regulations on mercury emissions from gold mines.

The state has fought the lawsuit, saying a federal program would interfere with the state's own mercury reductions program, which has been operating for several years. The Nevada Mining Association is also fighting the federal program.

Mining industry wants NV to postpone mercury regs


9th June 2009

The Nevada Mining Association wants the state to postpone ordering the industry to install additional mercury emissions control equipment until the federal government reveals its plans for gold mining pollution this summer.

Environmentalists say the state regulations should move ahead as scheduled and criticized the industry for putting profits ahead of the environment and the health of residents of Nevada and neighboring states.

The state intends to begin issuing permits in July requiring mining companies to equip their operations with the latest technology to prevent toxic mercury from escaping into the air. Most gold mines will have two years to comply.

Industry leaders argue in a petition filed with the Nevada Environmental Commission on Monday they should not have to spend the tens of millions of dollars required now because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may impose its own pollution control requirements on gold mines.

The EPA decision is expected in August.

Justin Hayes, policy director of the Idaho Conservation League, said the move is a "standard industry position of not wanting to address their pollution problems."

The group maintains airborne mercury from Nevada is contaminating fish both in Nevada and downwind.

"This is mining putting their profits ahead of the health of children who eat fish in Southern Idaho, Northern Nevada and Utah," Hayes told the Las Vegas Sun. "They're prioritizing corporate profits over the health of people. That's what it is."

Nevada gold mines have long been among the regions largest emitters of airborne mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage, especially in fetuses and children.

The state believes federal standards would disrupt its mercury control program, which has been operated for several years by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

"It does present uncertainty - not only for the state but also for the mining industry, as far as what will be expected," said Jill Lufrano, spokeswoman for the division.

The state has been requiring the mines to reduce airborne mercury for the past few years. Several mines have installed the new equipment.

The commission is scheduled to meet June 17.

Click here to view a copy of the Nevada Mining Association's petition


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