Mercury From Nevada Mines

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation LeagueThe fishing at Salmon Falls Reservoir, near the Nevada border, is pretty good. Just don't eat the fish. They're loaded with mercury, compliments of the gold mines in northern Nevada.

Nevada is the number one gold producing state in the union. But the ore that contains the gold also contains mercury. In the 1980's mining companies started using big ovens to cook the ore, making the gold easier to recover when using a cyanide rinse.

It was that cooking that resulted in the huge emissions of mercury that permeated the Idaho skies, says Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League. "And unbeknownst to us, Idaho was downwind from the largest concentration of mercury-emitting sources in the entire world."

Hayes should know. In 2004 he rented a portable mercury monitoring system to test the levels of mercury in southern Idaho. His dramatic findings set in motion a chain of events that has actually helped clean up some of the problem.

"The levels of mercury were three or four hundred times the background level you would expect to see, and at that time these were the highest observed levels of mercury in the air, not in a factory, but in the field, that had ever been recorded in the United States."

"This gold mining industry just off our southern border in Nevada for many years was putting out over 20,000 pounds of mercury a year. That’s the equivalent of about 140 coal-fired power plants of mercury stacked on our southern border chugging away and we didn’t even know about it."

The severe and permanent effects of mercury on the brain and nervous system of small children has been thoroughly documented.

At the prodding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Idaho, Nevada has now begun regulating mercury emissions from its gold mines. Voluntary enforcement simply was not working.

"The Department of Environmental Quality has done some very important work at Salmon Falls reservoir in southern Idaho," says Hayes, "to quantify how much mercury is in the system. We’re going to try to reduce mercury emissions so the problem doesn’t get worse, and then we’re going to have to wait for this mercury to work its way out of the system. That’s going to take 50 years."

Read an article on Justin Hayes and mercury contamination from the Nevada gold mines.

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