Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Because Environmental Protection Agency inspectors allege operators of two gold mines in Northern Nevada were improperly disposing of hazardous mercury, environmentalists want the federal agency to check the state’s other mines for similar violations.
Bonnie Gestring of the environmental group Earthworks, says the EPA’s allegations are particularly troubling because the Nevada Environmental Protection Division has been inspecting the mines for years without finding any major violations.
She contends that similar violations of federal law governing hazardous waste disposal are likely occurring at nine other Nevada gold mines — and polluting ground water and soil. Great Basin Resource Watch, a Nevada environmental group, asked the EPA last month to inspect those mines.
“These mines we’re talking about both produce over 2,000 pounds of hazardous waste a month,” Gestring said.
Talks continue between environmental regulators and the operators of the two mines put on notice by the EPA, nearly a year after the federal agency released its inspection reports, and as the House Natural Resources Committee is poised to reconsider mining law changes this week. A spokesman for the EPA said there is no deadline for concluding the talks.
The mines found to have potential violations are the Newmont Gold Quarry in Eureka County and Jerritt Canyon gold mine in Elko County. The EPA, in its inspection reports, alleges the mines improperly dispose of mercury in ponds, called tailings ponds.
In the case of the Newmont mine, the report notes: “The facility disposes of mercury-contaminated wastewater from the air pollution (controls)... in the ... tailings pond. Since the pond is not lined it releases mercury and other hazardous constituents into the soil.”
Environmentalists fear the mercury could contaminate ground water.
The EPA report also notes that mercury from the tailings pond is released into the air.
Mercury released into water or air can wind up in lakes or rivers and build up in fish and shellfish. It can then cause birth defects if consumed by pregnant women or women who may become pregnant.
The Jerritt Canyon inspection report alleges most of the same violations, although the EPA does not allege the tailings ponds there are unlined.
Gestring says these new alleged violations highlight a discrepancy between the federal and state regulators over whether gold mines are subject to the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The act regulates disposal of hazardous waste.
“If (the Nevada Environmental Protection Division) was doing its job ... the EPA’s actions would not be necessary,” said Dan Randolph, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch. “But since (the state regulator) is not taking actions to ensure the health and well-being of Nevadans, we are glad the EPA has stepped in.”
Omar Jabara, a spokesman for Newmont, which is headquartered in Colorado, denied there are safety issues at the Newmont mine. He said the results of the EPA inspection are baffling, because its position has been that the law did not apply to mines because they sell most of the mercury byproduct of mining operations rather than disposing of it.
“We have been following the laws and regulations as they have been dictated to us over the last 20 years,” Jabara said. “They (EPA inspectors) have their position and we obviously disagree with it. If this was a few years back, EPA would have disagreed with their own position today.”
Tim Crowley, president of the Nevada Mining Association, said selling mercury is not profitable but is a good way to get rid of the hazardous waste.
Neither the Nevada Environmental Protection Division nor the EPA would comment on specifics of the case. But a spokesman for the state agency said, “It is not uncommon for differences in regulatory interpretation to arise when dealing with complex regulatory issues. The division and EPA are working together to resolve some questions that came up during recent inspections.”
Jabara also said that tailings ponds at the Newmont Gold Quarry mine are lined, contrary to the EPA inspection report.
“That would violate so many laws,” he said.
Crowley said all modern tailings ponds are lined.
Gestring said the ponds still present a potentially costly problem for Nevada taxpayers, who could be stuck with the bill for cleaning up hazardous waste should the mines close. She said environmentalists are particularly concerned about the financial health of the Jerritt Canyon mine.
The Sun’s call to the Vancouver-based parent company of Jerritt Canyon Mine, Yukon-Nevada Gold Corp., was not returned.
Jabara said concerns about costly taxpayer-funded cleanups are unfounded. Mines are required to provide reclamation bonds to the state in order to operate, he said.
“When we develop a project ... we have to provide bonds to the state in the event that we do go bankrupt, that there is sufficient money ... remaining that would cover the cost of the cleanup,” he said.
And before a mine can be closed, the mine must be “reclaimed.” That includes removing hazardous waste, treating and monitoring water, and revegetating land disturbed by mining activities.
Jabara said that the concerns expressed by Gestring and other environmentalists stem from an anti-mining bias.
“When push comes to shove, if you ask them whether they would prefer the mines not be there, they would say yes,” he said. “That’s a legitimate position to take, but we’re running a legal business that provides thousands of jobs and economic development for communities of Northern Nevada.”