The U.S. Geological Survey tested approximately 1,000 fish from streams around the country between 1998 and 2005. Mercury was found in all of them, and at dangerous levels in 25% of them.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory, hardrock mining (and gold mining in particular) is the largest mercury emitter in the United States. It's not even close.
Most of that is released in waste rock and tailings dumps. But there's still enough emitted in the air to make gold mining intensive areas in Nevada one of the mercury air pollution hotspots in the country.
So it's really not surprising when the Reno News & Review reports this:
Want to avoid mercury in your food? Just cut back on tuna, right? That's not enough. A new federal study of mercury contamination found there's a lot more fish in the sea–or 291 streams, in this case–with the neurotoxin in their bodies. In fact, mercury was detected in every one of the roughly thousand fish tested by the U.S. Geological Survey between 1998 and 2005. Just over a quarter of them had levels considered by the Environmental Protection Agency as being too high for people eating average amounts of fish. And more than two-thirds of the fish exceeded the EPA level of concern for fish-eating mammals.
Elevated levels of mercury were particularly noted in Western states affected by mining, with 59 of the streams potentially affected by gold and mercury mining. However the main source of mercury to these waterways is atmospheric mercury, with coal-fired power plants being the largest source in the United States. The highest levels of mercury in fish were found in streams in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. High levels were also in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
We need federal regulation of mercury mining pollution (along with comprehensive reform of the 1872 Mining Law).
The mining industry opposed its inclusion in the Toxics Release Inventory — without which we wouldn't have know that mining is both the nation's largest mercury polluter and the nation's largest toxic polluter overall. Then when TRI data showed that Nevada gold mines were responsible for enormous amounts of mercury air pollution, industry succeeded in watering down the state regulations Nevada eventually enacted. Even those weak regulations were enough to shut down some mines.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. Mercury pollution has very well known health impacts. And the mining industry position on regulation has been wrong at every turn.
This new USGS report amply demonstrates that we need federal regulations under the Clean Air Act specifically oriented at reducing mercury emissions from mining, and preventing mining from polluting downwind waterbodies and watersheds.
UPDATE: To be clear, this is not a local/one-state issue — the scope of a federal rulemaking is demanded. This Alaskans for Resposible Mining report makes a complete case for federal regs, and the essential components thereof.
For More Information:
- USGS: Mercury in stream ecosytems. This page includes the report, an informative podcast explaining the report, and a FAQ.
- EARTHWORKS: Our mercury page explains how and why mercury pollution is a gold mining problem, and examples of impacts and problem mines.
- Alaskans for Responsible Mining: A Case for the Development of Mercury Regulations for Alaska's Existing and Proposed Gold Mines