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A poison wind: Toxic mercury blows into Utah from Nevada

Mercury is floating out of smokestacks into the atmosphere from a cluster of gold mines near Elko that account for as much as 11 percent of the nation's total mercury emissions.


By Patty Henetz The Salt Lake Tribune

Article Last Updated: 05/01/2005 04:14:48 AM


Poison is blowing eastward from Nevada, and Utah is in its path. Mercury is floating out of smokestacks into the atmosphere from a cluster of gold mines near Elko that account for as much as 11 percent of the nation's total mercury emissions. Utah's mountain high country, its urban heart and the irreplaceable ecology of the Great Salt Lake are directly downwind. Named for the Roman god of commerce, profit and thievery whose winged shoes sped him as the gods' messenger, mercury is a heavy metal that can foul the environment. Mercury exposure has been linked to neurological and kidney disease, loss of motor control and death.

Pregnant women and young children especially are at risk. Federal researchers estimate that more than 300,000 newborns each year may have an increased risk of learning disabilities associated with prenatal exposure to organic mercury that their mothers ingest from fish and shellfish. University of Texas epidemiologists have linked increasing incidences of childhood autism to mercury.

It is considered such a threat to human health that Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to make rules to cut mercury coming from coal-fired power plants, the main source of global atmospheric mercury. Yet the Nevada mines are under no such state or federal regulations. Rather, the four largest mining companies have entered into a voluntary mercury emissions reduction program crafted with EPA's Region 9 office in San Francisco. The program's results have been mixed.

"This voluntary program has resulted in some emissions reductions. But they could stop complying anytime they want," said Idaho Conservation League spokesman Justin Hayes. "Mercury is such a powerful neurotoxin, you want this stuff controlled to the maximal point possible, not to the levels the gold mining industry wants to."

The Conservation League is ready to sue the EPA to force it to impose emissions reductions rules on the Nevada mines. In an Oct. 21 letter to then-EPA Administrator and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, the Conversation League charged that prevailing winds and atmospheric circulation patterns send huge plumes of mercury into southern Idaho, possibly contributing to mercury-related fish consumption advisories. And what goes for Idaho ought to go for Utah, Hayes said.

"It's probably time for the state of Utah to pull its head out of the sand," he said. "There's no safe level of mercury in your environment." Up the food chain: In that case, says Salt Lake City environmental activist Ivan Weber, Utah again is a guinea pig much as it was during Cold War atomic tests in Nevada that sent fallout eastward. "Salt Lake City's burgeoning, youth-weighted population may be the real canary in this mine, along with the birds of the Great Salt Lake extended migratory ecosystem," he said.

Glenn Miller, a professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a Great Basin Mine Watch board member and an expert on Nevada gold mines and mercury. In a March report prepared for the EPA that uses 1998 emissions reports and extrapolates backward to 1985, Miller estimated the 18 Nevada gold mines released between 70 and 200 tons of mercury. That's probably an underestimate, he said, because several mines aren't reporting atmospheric emissions. One reported producing about 120 tons of byproduct mercury but zero emissions - which Miller says is a scientific impossibility.

Scientists know that mercury can travel great distances. It's understood that methylmercury, the element's organic form, can get into the bodies of humans who eat fish and shellfish. Less clear is how else mercury might be harming people, animals or the environment. Research continues into whether mercury from amalgam dental fillings contribute to Alzheimer's disease. Methylmercury from gold mining is being blamed on the re-emergence in the Amazon of Minimata disease - named for a Japanese fishing village where 1,500 people were poisoned in the 1950s.

Consumption of predatory fish high on the food chain such as swordfish and shark is of particular concern in south and southeast Asia, Africa and China. At the same time, California officials have issued warnings about eating bass, catfish, bluegill, hitch, carp, trout and crayfish from Sierra Range streams fouled by gold mining. Merthymercury contamination "is potentially a major impact on the recreational industry in Utah," Miller said. "You're going to be wondering if you should eat the fish you catch." "Urgent science":

Federal scientists studying the Great Salt Lake have reported finding some of the highest levels of mercury anywhere in the nation. The lake is in a basin surrounded by mountains that act as a collector for passing storms. Storms from the west generally pass over northern Nevada, part of the larger area known as the Great Basin. The water that lands in the basin is in turn evaporated and redeposited nearby.

"A mercury cycle looks a great deal like the water cycle," said Weber, a sustainable energy consultant. "Some mercury falls out near the source, but not all of it. There's a distance of travel function we need to understand. Those Nevada mines have suddenly made this urgent science."

Miller said that because mercury is drifting around the globe, including huge amounts from China's coal-fired plants, it would be difficult to determine exactly where the mercury in the Great Salt Lake, or anywhere else, came from. It's unlikely the mining industry is responsible for all the mercury in Utah and Idaho, "but it is fair to say there is a significant fraction," he said.

Still, "I would be surprised if in the Uintas you didn't have some pretty significant mercury loads." If so, the state Department of Environmental Quality hasn't identified them. Utah has no mercury-related fish consumption advisories. But that's because the state hasn't tested the fish to see whether mercury is accumulating in their flesh.

Utah Division of Water Quality Director Walt Baker says the state is still developing testing protocols for fish tissue and other freshwater aquatic life, though a "limited number" of tissue samples have been sent to EPA. One sample exceeded the level of what they would consider acceptable, Baker said. Miller believes Utah environmental regulators ought to be talking seriously with their Nevada counterparts.

"In Nevada, the only place mercury falls is in Elko. But who's due east of all the mercury releases? Salt Lake City," said Miller. "I would not live downwind of one of those places. Utah needs to tell Nevada to get the hell in gear. We need to go after the industry with both fists."

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality estimates the northern Nevada mines may be responsible for up to 11 percent of all the nation's mercury stack emissions. The EPA estimates the mines are responsible for 9.57 percent of the releases. The EPA has compiled its annual compendium of hazardous air emissions and their point sources, the Toxic Release Inventory, since 1987, but it wasn't until 1998 that mine emissions were included. Suddenly, Nevada zoomed to the top of the mercury emissions list. The culprit? Relatively new cyanide and thermal processing techniques used by a dozen or so gold mines, most of them in the state's remote northeast.

"It's a huge issue. It caught everybody by surprise," said Dave Jones, EPA Region 9 associate director of waste management. A voluntary approach: Because there were no specific rules affecting mercury emissions from mines, Jones said, EPA officials had to decide whether to proceed with a regulatory process known as Maximum Achievable Control Technology, or MACT. But the process is cumbersome and has led to many lawsuits in other instances, Jones said. So San Francisco-based Region 9 in 2001 decided to try a voluntary approach: They asked cooperating mines either to put in MACT-like controls or reduce their mercury emissions by 50 percent by July of this year.

The first mine to participate was the Barrick Goldstrike, the largest single gold mining complex in the nation. Barrick then helped convince the Jerritt Canyon, Newmont and Cortez mines to come along, said Rich Haddock, Barrick's vice president for environmental issues. On paper, the mines have made progress. The numbers, however, are inconsistent and confusing, because some are actual emissions as reported to the EPA while others are calculated to show what the emissions could be if the processors were running nonstop, Haddock said.

In 2001, the five mines collectively emitted 11,793 pounds of mercury, or roughly 90 percent of all reported Nevada atmospheric releases. Jerritt Canyon alone reported to the EPA a release of 7,990 pounds. By 2003, their totals dropped to 4,446 pounds, largely due to reported reductions from the Jerritt mine, whose emissions fell to 793 pounds. By comparison, the average coal-fired plant emits 120 pounds of mercury. Older plants in the eastern U.S. report 250 to 400 pounds of mercury emissions.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection controls the mines' permits, which are up for renewal this year. The state could include some of the voluntary emissions control measures as conditions of the permits. But those in the agency who spoke with The Tribune were unfamiliar with some of the basic issues. Colleen Cripps, chief of Nevada's air quality planning, didn't know how the voluntary program started and said she didn't know what emissions controls were in place.

Mike Elges, Nevada's chief of air pollution control, didn't know whether the state would take a regulatory stance to further reduce the emissions. Elges said the state was assessing the program's results, but said he wasn't convinced that the mercury emitted from the mine's processors was the same type of mercury that comes out of coal-fired plants. Miller scoffed at that notion. "There is no scientific basis for suggesting mercury coming off a thermal process like a [gold ore] roaster or a power plant is going to be significantly different," he said. "It's all going to be elemental mercury, and that's the form that moves most quickly in the environment."

Mercury facts:

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment but also has been introduced through human activity, particularly from coal-fired power plants and mining. 

It is toxic even in small amounts. While most heavy metals are toxic in the parts per billion, mercury is toxic in the parts per trillion.

Methylmercury, the organic and most toxic form of the element, collects in water, plants and animals. Predatory fish such as tuna, salmon, swordfish and trout have been found to have high levels of mercury in their tissues. Humans who eat mercury-laden fish, in turn, are tainted. 

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