Letters From the West

EPA fines Nevada gold mines for inaccurate toxic reports

Three subsidiaries of Barrick Gold Corp. in Nevada agreed this month to pay $618,000 for failing to correctly report toxic chemical releases.

Barrick Cortez, Inc., Barrick Gold US, Inc. and Homestake Mining Co. agreed to pay in a settlement agreement with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The mines — Cortez Gold Mine near Crescent Valley, the Ruby Hill Gold Mine near Eureka, and the Bald Mountain Gold Mine near the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge — lie just south of the Idaho border.

Researchers from the Idaho National Laboratory and The Idaho Conservation League’s Justin Hayes detected mercury in the air downwind of the mines, blowing into Idaho, beginning the investigations that led to tougher state and federal regulations for mercury emissions from mines.

EPA inspectors examined the mines’ records and found the companies failed to submit timely, complete and correct Toxic Release Inventory reports in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 for toxic chemicals as required by law. These chemicals include cyanide, lead and mercury.

“The Toxic Release Inventory program is a vital tool for tracking toxic releases across the country, providing transparency about chemicals in communities,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “The program is undermined if companies do not report or misreport the use or release of chemicals at their facilities.”

Metal ore mining accounts for 98 percent of total toxic releases reported to EPA in Nevada. Barrick gold mining facilities in the U.S. produced 3.38 million ounces — 105.6 tons — of gold in 2011, and the Cortez Gold Mine is the second largest gold mine in the world.

Barrick officials told the Associated Press’s Scott Sonner it disagrees with EPA. It said the company “has complied in good faith with all requirements of annual TRI reporting since (first established in) 1998,” said Louis Schack, director of communications for Barrick Gold of North America based in Salt Lake City.

“Nonetheless, to achieve regulatory certainty regarding its TRI obligations, Barrick has agreed to enter into a settlement agreement with EPA,” he said.

For my regular readers this is not a new story.

I began writing about mercury from Nevada gold mines in 2004 when Hayes hounded me to pay attention to the issue. The EPA had a totally voluntary emission program for the mines then, in part because of the power of Sen. Harry Reid but also because they didn’t see a problem.

Even Nevada environmentalists were convinced the mercury pollution wasn’t as bad as Hayes said. But only 20 percent of the industry there was participating in the voluntary program.

Hayes rented a portable mercury monitor and went on a drive in 2005 in southern Idaho and northern Nevada searching for mercury. He started on the Shoshone-Paiute’s Duck Valley Indian Reservation that straddles the Nevada-Idaho border and immediately picked up higher than normal readings.

As he got to the gold mines, he measured high mercury levels, which convinced him the voluntary mercury program wasn’t doing enough.

Idaho officials came to the same conclusion when INL tests showed in 2005 that mercury levels in the air south of Twin Falls rose 30 to 70 percent higher than normal levels when winds blew from the southwest, where the gold mines are located.

In 2006, Nevada made the program mandatory and required all mines that emitted mercury above a certain level to use the maximum available technology for cutting mercury emissions. But the program still depended on self reporting and when the EPA found companies weren’t reporting accurately they acted, fining Jipangu International Inc. $105,000 in 2011 for failing to correctly report toxic chemical releases from its Florida Canyon gold mine upwind of Idaho in Nevada from 2005 through 2007.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West