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Pacific Southwest, Region 9

Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations

Nevada Mining Partnership Program

The Problem

Mercury is a toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative pollutant that affects the nervous system and has long been known to have toxic effects on humans and wildlife.

The 1998 Toxic Release Inventory information submitted by Nevada gold mining companies revealed that these mines are significant sources of mercury air emissions. Four gold mines reported air stack emissions totaling 13,560 pounds of mercury. One facility had a total of over 9,400 pounds of mercury air emissions while another had over 2,200 pounds. To put these releases into context, an average coal fired power plant emits about 250 pounds per year of mercury.

The Solution

EPA has a number of regulatory options to require the mining industry to further reduce mercury emissions. One regulatory option under the Clean Air Act is for EPA to establish Maximum Achievable Control Technology air emission limits for this industry. However, going through a process to develop and promulgate new air standards can be long and can incur substantial transactions costs for the Agency and the mining industry.

Another way to achieve substantial reductions in mercury emissions is for EPA to work with mining companies and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to form a voluntary partnership to reduce mercury air emissions below the levels required by current regulations.

The Results

The Voluntary Mercury Air Emission Reduction Program (VMRP), set emission reduction goals at 33% by 2003 and 50% by 2005. The companies achieved a 40% reduction by the end of 2002 and most recently, a 75% reduction by the end of 2003. These are extraordinary reductions for a hazardous air pollutant in just two years. By using a voluntary partnership approach the mines installed emission control equipment and instituted pollution prevention process changes well in advance of what would have been required through a regulatory rule making process. The environmental results are especially significant, as these four mines were responsible for 90 percent of the mercury mining air emissions reported in the 1998 TRI.

Over the past two years EPA, Nevada DEP, and four major gold mining companies have explored development of a voluntary program with a goal to achieve significant, permanent, and rapid reductions in mercury air emissions from gold mining operations. Secondary goals for this program are to achieve these reductions with low transaction costs for industry and regulatory agencies and to allow gold mining companies the flexibility to craft site-specific approaches to attaining mercury reductions.

During this time these companies undertook detailed investigations to better characterize their mercury sources, explore pollution prevention approaches such as the use of chemicals to suppress mercury concentrations in cyanide solutions and process water, and develop mercury control strategies that include installation of additional pollution control equipment. Based on the results of their investigations these companies expressed interest in participating in a voluntary mercury reduction program.

Nevada DEP took the lead for coordinating with the mining companies to develop a formal voluntary program. On December 18, 2001 DEP sent EPA the first draft of a formal voluntary program that had the support of the mining companies.

The four major gold mining companies are responsible for approximately 90% of the mercury air emissions from all gold mines in Nevada. If they become charter members of the voluntary program, this program should be able to accomplish the goal of significant, permanent, and rapid reductions in mercury air emissions from gold mining operations.

Contacts

For further information, please contact Lisa Vanderpool at (415) 972-3316, vanderpool.lisa@epa.gov or David Jones at (415) 972-3388, jones.davidb@epa.gov.

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