Friday, June 3, 2005

Idaho needs to get serious about mercury regulation

J. Robb Brady is publisher emeritus and a member of the editorial board of the Post Register in Idaho Falls.

Gold mining is affecting Idaho's public health by polluting our air and water.

You know about the threat cyanide gold mining poses in central Idaho. But here's a new hazard—mercury poisoning—coming from a new source—northern Nevada.

Nevada's concentration of gold mines rely on an evaporating heating process. One consequence is a plume of airborne mercury that heads straight into Idaho's Snake River Valley.

It's a problem that could grow if proposed coal gasification plants get built in Idaho.

Yet, federal and state agencies responsible for protecting the public health aren't controlling the spread of this new phenomenon. Indeed, there's no state or federal standard setting a realistic mercury exposure limit for health protection.

Mercury can become a potent neurotoxin affecting the brain and nervous system. Children and pregnant women are especially at risk.

The Idaho Department of Health says it is "very concerned" about this airborne toxin. It already has identified reservoirs and streams in the Snake River basin where fish—contaminated with mercury from Nevada—present health problems if eaten more than once a month. Even then, the fish require special preparation.

Mercury falling into water or runoff from mercury-contaminated soils creates the problem.

Among the areas cited by the department are the C.J. Strike Reservoir, the Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir, the Brownlee Dam Reservoir and the Lake Lowell Reservoir.

In Idaho, the Monsanto Co. also utilizes an oven process to heat the phosphate mined at its P4 mine near Soda Springs. This process is also emitting about 620 pounds of mercury into the air in the Caribou County area.

That may not sound like much—Monsanto, after all, produces 4.3 million pounds of waste rock called slag, which means it's the fourth largest waste producer in Idaho.

But 620 pounds of mercury is four times what a typical coal-fired power plant would emit in one year.

By the way, coal gasification plants are proposed for Pocatello and Soda Springs and a coal-fired power plant for Jerome. Mercury emissions are likely from the gasification process. Already, county governments involved have been asked to measure ammonia and possibly mercury in the air and water to protect public health if the coal plants are built.

Until now, Idahoans haven't focused on mercury because gold mines in this state don't use the oven process. They rely on a cyanide filtering technique, which poses other risks.

The huge mining operation of the Atlanta Gold Co. at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness is a case in point. The Idaho Conservation League has warned the mining company that it may sue if the arsenic-laced water being funneled into the Upper Boise River is not stopped. But why should it fall on the shoulders of this environmental organization to protect the public interest?

Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality and the Idaho Land Board need to step up to that challenge—and then face this new threat.

Mercury, whatever the source, and other mining poisons, however they are produced, should be placed under sufficient controls to protect the public health and the state's water.

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