Nevada, mines top toxic release list
RENO (AP) – Hard-rock mining accounted for half of the toxic chemicals released nationally in 1999, and about one-seventh of all U.S. toxic releases were in Nevada, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
Environmental activists say the EPA findings, which mirror last year’s annual report, demonstrate the need for stricter mining regulations that the Bush administration has put on hold.
But mining industry officials say the numbers paint an exaggerated picture of the risks of mining as a result of the chemicals that naturally occur in the rocks and ground.
Industry leaders are optimistic a recent federal court ruling in Colorado will ease reporting requirements and keep them off the top of EPA’s list next year.
Overall, the amount of chemicals released in the United States increased by 5 percent from 7.3 billion pounds in 1998 to 7.7 billion pounds, the EPA said in its annual Toxic Release Inventory.
Four mining states reported the highest volume of toxic releases, which included 585 million pounds of arsenic and arsenic compounds nationally.
Nevada heads the overall list with 1.17 billion pounds of pollution – 14 percent of the national total, followed by Utah, 1.16 billion pounds; Arizona, 963 million pounds; and Alaska, 433 million pounds.
The same four states headed the list in 1998, the first year the EPA calculated mining wastes.
Texas and Ohio are the only other two states that topped 300 million pounds.
Two individual mines in Nevada cleared that mark on their own.
Newmont Gold Co.’s Twin Creeks Mine near Golconda in Humboldt County reported 344 million pounds and Barrick Goldstrike’s mine in Elko County reported 325 million pounds. BHP Copper Robinson operations near Ruth in White Pine County reported 171 million pounds.
”This is not a surprise that mining is still bringing the state of Nevada up to the top position in the TRI report,” said Russ Fields, president of the Nevada Mining Association.
”It gives an unfortunate impression that there are these millions of pounds of pollution that are coming from Nevada’s mines, which is simply not the case,” he said Thursday.
At most mines, 95 percent of the reported chemicals ”are in the rocks that we have to move in the normal course of the mining operations,” he said.
”These are naturally occurring substances that are part of the rocks that have been there for millions and millions of years,” Field said.
”We don’t believe these naturally occurring materials pose any risk to anybody,” he said.
Environmentalists aren’t so sure.
Chris Cervini of the Mineral Policy Center, a nonprofit environmental watchdog based in Washington, said the materials pose a danger when they are brought to the surface because they sometimes drain into groundwater.
A good analogy is the Exxon Valdez oil tanker that caused a massive spill in Alaska, he said.
”The oil it was carrying was fine when it was in the ground, but when you take it out and put it on a ship and hit a rock, there is trouble,” Cervini said.
”Underground, this arsenic and sulfur is fine. But when you bring it to the top and make it available to rain to be leached into groundwater, it causes all sorts of problems,” he said.
”The rock is drilled and blasted but it is not crushed into fine particles that expose lots of surface to the environment and could potentially release some of these substances,” he said.
Besides, all waste-rock sites where the materials are stored are monitored and regulated by state and federal agencies, he said.
”So if any substances that could harm wildlife or people starts to move off the property, we are going to know about it and our regulators are going to know about it long before it becomes a problem.”
Conservationists worry that the Bush administration will rescind the orders that the mining industry report the naturally occurring materials in the TRI audits. They already are angry about the administration’s decision to put on hold the stricter mining regulations imposed in the last days of the Clinton administration.
”When you look at the massive amounts of waste this industry produces and uses – cyanide, sulfuric acid, arsenic and other heavy metals – it’s unfathomable that the Bush administration would want to suspend these commonsense environmental protections,” said Alan Septoff, the Mineral Policy Center’s campaign director.
Cervini said a recent court ruling in Colorado granted the mining industry a preliminary exemption from reporting many of its future toxic releases to the EPA.
Fields said he’s optimistic Cervini is correct, but said industry lawyers are still reviewing the ruling. The Justice Department hasn’t decided whether to appeal.
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