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EPA Limits Mercury Limits in Gold Mining Operations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday issued rules to limit mercury air pollution from gold mines under the authority of the Clean Air Act. The new rule did not include limits for other hazardous mining air pollutants like cyanide and arsenic.

Most airborne mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, but emissions from gold mines account for about 10 percent, or 2,775 pounds, according to figures compiled from the EPA’s 2009 Toxic Release Inventory by Earthworks, an international mining reform group. According to the organization, even the smallest amounts of mercury are extremely dangerous to the developing brains of infants and children.

“It’s high time the gold industry is required to limit mercury emissions that have long been a danger to children’s health,” Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks’ circuit rider, said in a statement. “The industry has been enjoying record profits, while releasing needlessly high amounts of mercury pollution.”

According to the EPA, in 2008 fish consumption warnings were in effect for more than 16 million acres of lakes and 1.3 million miles of rivers because of mercury contamination — a 19 percent increase in lake contamination and 42 percent increase for rivers from 2006.

The new regulations allow 84 pounds of mercury emissions – for new mines — for every million tons of ore processed for mines using autoclaves and roasters.  The new rules would allow more for existing sources and other, less significant, new sources.  Mercury air emissions in Alaska currently total just 71 pounds for all industrial sources, according to EPA figures.

Of the 12 largest emitters of mercury air pollution among U.S. gold mines, eight are in Nevada, the third-largest producer of gold in the world. In 2006, Nevada adopted rules requiring gold mines to use pollution scrubbers and filters.

“Because the Nevada rules mandate the use of specific technology and the EPA rules set limits on emissions, it remains to be seen how much this will further reduce mercury air pollution in the state,” Dr. Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno said in a prepared statement. “But the new rules are important because they provide nationwide standards.”

According to EPA, there are over 20 facilities that extract gold from ore that must meet the requirements of the rule within three years. The agency acknowledged that some facilities in Nevada already are making significant progress toward the federal requirements under that state’s program.

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