Mercury-Laden Clouds Threaten Utah
SALT LAKE CITY Mercury-laden clouds from gold mine smokestacks near Elko, Nev., are floating east and could pose a health threat and damage the ecology of the Great Salt Lake. The mines account for as much as 11 percent of total Mercury emissions in the United States.
Mercury is a heavy metal that occurs naturally. Exposure to the element has been linked to neurological and kidney diseases, autism, loss of motor control and death. Young children and pregnant women are most at risk.
Congress has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make rules to cut mercury emissions, but the Elko-area mines are not under those regulations.
Instead, they enrolled in a voluntary emissions program that has had mixed results, said Justin Hayes, spokesman for the Idaho Conservation League.
The organization is ready to sue to force the EPA 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.
A March report prepared for the EPA that uses 1998 emissions reports and extrapolates backward to 1985, estimated the 18 Nevada gold mines released between 70 and 200 tons of mercury.
That's probably and underestimate, said Glenn Miller, the University of Nevada environmental science professor who prepared the report.
Scientists know that mercury can travel great distances and the element's organic form, methylmercury, can get into humans through the consumption of fish and shellfish. Lesser known is how else mercury harms humans, animals and the environment.
Consumption of swordfish and shark are high on the risk list in Asia and Africa, and California officials have issued warnings about some fish that populate streams in the Sierra fouled by gold mining.
Mercury contamination "is potentially a major impact on the recreational industry in Utah," said Miller. "You're going to be wondering if you should eat the fish you catch."
Studies of the Great Salt Lake have found some of the highest levels of mercury in the nation. But to date, Utah has no mercury-related fish consumption advisories.
Because mercury is drifting around the globe, it would be difficult to determine exactly where the mercury in the Great Salt Lake, or anywhere else, came from, Miller said.
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."
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality hasn't identified any such loads, although no fish have been tested.
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.
Source: Associated Press