Thursday, July 15, 2010


By Carl Wassilie and Nikos Pastos

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed a rule under the Clean Air Act to limit mercury air emissions from gold mines. While EPA is taking a positive step in moving to regulate mercury, the proposed rule does not go far enough to protect all Alaskans, including indigenous peoples’ customary and traditional lifeways, and Alaska’s water, wildlife, cultural resources and ecosystems from mercury.

This rulemaking is important to Alaska and Alaskans because of the Donlin Creek Mine Project. There is mercury associated with the gold ore at the proposed Donlin Creek Mine. This means that mining and milling can release significant amounts of mercury. Based on conservative estimates of how much mercury is in the ore at Donlin Creek, if uncontrolled, the mine will process each year ore that will contain over 20 tons of mercury. Some of this will end up in tailings, some will be captured in pollution control devices and some will be emitted to the atmosphere. Under the proposed EPA rule the mine could be permitted to emit over 3200 pounds of mercury per year just from ore pre-treatment processes, and more from other parts of the milling operation.

This is significant, especially given that 2008 Toxic Release Inventory data from the EPA indicates that only 71 pounds of mercury was emitted in Alaska that year. That means that under the proposed rule, the Donlin Creek Mine would be permitted to increase mercury air emissions in Alaska by a whopping 4,500%.

Is the EPA’s proposed limit, which is supposed to protect people and the environment from this hazardous pollutant, really protective when it allows 4,500% more mercury to enter the environment from this single source? The clear answer is “no”; the rule needs to be stronger.

Additionally, the EPA rule does not impose limits on mercury emitted from “fugitive sources” at mines, which include tailings ponds and waste rock piles. These fugitive emissions of mercury can be taken up into the atmosphere and travel for many miles. A recent study done at two Nevada gold mines indicate that nearly 20% of the total mercury may come from fugitive sources, depending on conditions.

The state and EPA are already concerned about mercury in Alaska; agencies are planning a conference in October to try to get a handle on mercury deposition and risk in the state—the Quicksilver Conference. Donlin represents the first major industrial mercury source in Alaska, and regulation of how mercury is managed at this mine is critical for assessing the associated risk.

The Donlin Creek LLC is well aware of the potential impacts to the region and Alaska from mercury emissions from its mining operations. The company has publically stated that it can capture 98% of the point source mercury emissions. However, even with emissions controls that capture 98% of mercury emissions, the mine could still emit nearly 1,000 pounds of mercury per year, over 1,000 % increase above current mercury air emissions in Alaska.

This brings up more questions: what will the mine will do with the mercury that is captured—an incredible 20-40 tons per year? How can it be stored safely on the shores of the Kuskokwim River and safely transported off-site? What are the cummulative health impacts of historic mercury and gold mines along with the current global fallout from foreign industrial resources? Who will be left with the mess? These are just a few questions that the EPA rule does not touch.

The implications of such a weak rule are clear: the EPA has failed in its duty to craft a rule that limits emissions and protects people and the environment. And unfortunately, those of us with families and friends living in the Kuskokwim River watershed will again be faced with mercury in our lakes, rivers, fish, birds and lands.

Please write to the EPA and ask them to make a rule that is protective of people and the environment. You can submit comments to, Attend Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2010-0239. For more information on the proposed rule, visit:

Nikos Pastos is a social scientist from Anchorage. He conducts research on technological disasters.

Carl Wassilie is a Yupiaq biologist. He is based in Anchorage.