For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency's annual inventory of industrial toxic releases included hardrock mining and six other industries - and the newcomers stole the show.
With the addition of these industries to the Toxics Release Inventory (HCN, 9/16/96), reported toxic releases in the United States nearly tripled, increasing from 2.6 to 7.3 billion pounds, 3.5 billion pounds of which came from hardrock mining. "It demonstrates to the public what they didn't know before - the hardrock-mining industry is the biggest polluter in the country," says Alan Septoff of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Industry representatives don't deny the charge, although they say most of the toxins released occur naturally in the rock being mined. "The only way to reduce the numbers (of toxins) is to mine less," says Doug Hock, a spokesman for Newmont Mining Corporation.
Regardless of their natural origins, arsenic, lead and mercury are only toxic when disturbed, Septoff says. "When it's in the ground before it's mined, it isn't threatening anybody."
Of all the toxins reported by the mines, the EPA says mercury releases are the most alarming. "The news about the mercury air emissions was the biggest surprise that came from the information from the mining industry," says Adam Browning, the inventory's program manager for EPA Region 9. He says seven gold mines in Nevada reported releases of mercury, and four of those released a combined 13,560 pounds directly into the air. Mercury gains toxicity as it travels up the food chain and can cause neurological disorders in humans and wildlife.
Because such high mercury emissions were not expected, no federal regulations exist to prevent the mining industry from releasing more mercury into the air. "The mining industry has never been called upon to reduce its toxic production," Septoff of the Mineral Policy Center says. "Until they have an incentive ... it doesn't pay them to act responsibly." The TRI can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site at http://www.epa.gov/tri.