Deadline nears for comments on mercury emissions

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Federal rules limiting mercury emissions at gold mines are long overdue but aren't nearly tough enough, environmental groups said Friday.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing for the first time to regulate mercury air emissions from gold mining under the Clean Air Act. The deadline for comments is Monday.

According to the environmental group Earthworks, the new rules would allow the proposed Donlin Creek Mine in southwest Alaska to release a huge amount of mercury into the air each year. Earthworks' Bonnie Gestring said under the proposed rules Donlin could become the largest source of mercury air pollution in the United States.

"We know these mines can be very large sources of mercury," Gestring said, "but the proposed mercury emission limits by the EPA need to be more stringent."

Calls to Donlin Creek LLC officials in Anchorage and EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan were not immediately returned Friday.

The regulations being considered would allow 149 pounds of mercury per every million tons of ore processed for mines using autoclaves and roasters.

That means under the rules, Donlin could be authorized to emit up to 3,200 pounds of mercury into the air, or 40 times the amount of mercury released by all industries in Alaska each year, said Gestring, speaking from Earthworks' Missoula, Mont., office.

"That is a staggering amount," Gestring said.

The amount was calculated by looking at the mine's technical reports that estimate the mercury content of the ore at 1 part per million and an estimate that it would process roughly 59,000 pounds of ore a day at Donlin.

The proposed rules also are weak when it comes to compliance, requiring testing just once a year, said Brook Brisson, clean water and mining program director at the Northern Alaska Environment Center in Fairbanks.

"Mercury is a really powerful neurotoxin. We need to know their mercury controls are functioning every single day of the year," she said.

Elevated levels of mercury from abandoned mercury mines are already a problem in the Kuskokwim watershed near Donlin, said Pam Miller, executive director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

"This rule simply does not go far enough to protect public health," she said.

NovaGold Resources and Barrick Gold Corp. are proposing to develop the mine. Exploration has been conducted since 1995. According to the Donlin Creek website, it could be years before the company knows whether the project will be permitted.

The company estimates Donlin has reserves of nearly 30 million ounces of gold, making it perhaps the third-largest gold producer in the world if developed. Gold was first discovered in Donlin Creek in 1909.

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