Mercury rising

But scientists say there is good news despite Nevada’s high ranking as a toxic site

The Carson River, polluted for more than a century, stands as an example of the dangers of mercury.

The Carson River, polluted for more than a century, stands as an example of the dangers of mercury.

Photo By Carol Cizauskas

It may come as no surprise to people familiar with the history of mining in Nevada to learn that the most recent federal report on the subject notes that the Nevada mining industry produced more toxic waste than any other industry in the country.

In fact, according to the 2002 Toxic Release Inventory Report (TRI), a product of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three Nevada mines—Jerritt Canyon, Cortez Gold and Barrick Goldstrike—were in the top 10 producers of waste, including the dangerous toxin mercury.

Mercury can cause damage to kidneys, nervous systems, sensory perception and developing fetuses. Because it’s a persistent toxin that accumulates and increases in quantities through the food chain, industries are required to report all mercury emissions, even in concentrations small enough that, in other toxins, would be considered unimportant.

And that, say representatives of the mining industry, is the rub: You can’t mine the earth without turning up mercury.

“Because we move so much earth, you have to report it,” said Carol Raulston, senior vice president for communications of the National Mining Association. “But it’s all naturally there.”

That may be true, say environmentalists concerned about toxic waste, but so what? As Susan Czopek, political director for the group Great Basin Mine Watch, puts it, the fact that mining didn’t create the mercury doesn’t mean people won’t be affected.

“There are issues of the rock being exposed when it otherwise wouldn’t be,” she said. “We don’t think that’s a valid argument.”

Perhaps confusing the issue further is the EPA’s caution that its report doesn’t mean much without more information.

“TRI isn’t something that’s going to predict problems. Its job is to take information and do further interpretation,” said EPA spokesperson Lisa Fasano. “You have to break it down—there’s a difference between what’s being released to the air and the ground.”

Glenn Miller agrees. He’s a Sierra Club activist, but he’s also a University of Nevada, Reno, Environmental Science professor, so he’s committed to looking at scientific data with clear eyes.

Right now, he said, the mercury emissions are unlikely to harm people because atmospheric emissions are still low.

“The most important number there is the atmospheric emissions,” he said. “The total emission numbers are much less important than atmospheric emissions; [ground emissions are] less accessible to people.”

Miller also noted that, regardless of how the TRI report is interpreted, the good news is that mining corporations themselves are trying to make changes. An industry-generated process called the Voluntary Mercury Air Emissions Reduction Program works with four of Nevada’s mines to lower mercury emissions and, Miller said, probably is making strides against Nevada’s standing in the TRI.

“I think the 2003 data will show the voluntary-reduction program will have been successful,” Miller said. “I think the industry has really responded; we won’t be in the top 10 almost for sure.”

While Miller was impressed with the voluntary action, he said it might not be enough in the future. Without regulations, Nevada mines don’t have to be careful.

“Voluntary reduction only works because of public pressure, and that’s not sufficient,” he said. “At this time it’s worked, but it’s not a long-term solution.”

And, he said, the ground-based emissions, while not immediately dangerous, are definitely creating a problem for future generations.

“There’s a long-term risk that people are going to have to monitor and manage [mining sites],” he said. “You can never build a road on them, you can’t put houses on them; it’s a legacy issue that people are going to have to deal with forever.”

In Nevada, that long-term risk from mercury pollution has a riveting model. The Carson River, still heavily polluted with mercury from the Comstock mining and milling period of the 1860s, is the only site in the state on the list of the nation’s worst toxic problems—the Superfund National Priorities List.

According to an EPA statement, “The [Carson River] site includes mercury-contaminated soils at former mill sites, mercury contamination in waterways adjacent to the mill sites, and mercury contamination in sediments, fish and wildlife over more than a 50-mile length of the Carson River, beginning near Carson City and extending downstream to the Lahontan Valley.”

Mercury has polluted “the sediments and adjacent flood plain of the Carson River and in the sediments of Lahontan Reservoir, Carson Lake, Stillwater Wildlife Refuge and Indian Lakes,” according to the EPA. “In addition, tailings with elevated mercury levels are still present at and around the historic mill sites, particularly in Six Mile Canyon. … Surface water, sediment, soil, fish and wildlife at the site are contaminated with mercury.”

Such contamination presents a potential health risk to “children who are in long-term contact with highly contaminated soils. …” Fish from waterways in the site should not be eaten, and those same fish pose risks to fish-eating birds.”

In particular, the agency warns against eating fish from Lahontan Reservoir because they "routinely exceed the Food and Drug Administration action level of 1 part per million (ppm).