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By Rose Ragsdale
For Mining News 

EPA eyes new rule for U.S. gold mines

After clearing state hurdles, Nevada mine may find path blocked by federal restrictions; agency seen as pushing anti-mining agenda


Last updated 7/26/2009 at Noon

Yukon-Nevada Gold Corp. is working to bring on line its new mercury-emission control equipment in compliance with state-mandated mercury emission limits and resume gold production at the Jerritt Canyon Mine near Elko, Nev.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is quietly drafting a new federal regulation that could throw another monkey wrench into the miner's two-year effort to return the gold mine to production.

Yukon-Nevada reported a delay June 2 in the fabrication of the fiberglass ductwork that it planned to install at Jerritt Canyon, resulting in the company missing a deadline to complete the installation.

As a result, the miner's subsidiary, Queenstake Resources Inc. USA, had to cease operation of roaster circuits at the mine May 30 in compliance with an order from the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection.

The mill and processing facility at Jerritt Canyon had operated successfully for almost 25 years, producing more than 7 million ounces of gold.

Nevada's regulators ordered Queenstake to install new state-of-the-art emission control equipment at the mine in March 2008 after a year-long investigation into mercury emissions at the facility.

Redundant regulations?

Meanwhile, the Nevada Mining Association asked state regulators to pause and re-examine a plan requiring improved mercury emissions-control equipment at gold mines in the state, citing new possible regulations to be issued by the federal government this summer.

The request, filed in June, was based on word that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to decide on a possible mercury-emissions rule for gold mines in August. The mining group argued that multiple requirements from both state and federal authorities might cause confusion and waste millions of dollars in preventative work.

Environmental groups, however, said Nevada miners shouldn't be concerned. Rather, the EPA's work is a sign that mercury emissions control programs are needed in other states, they say.

As an example, they cited possible mines planned for Alaska and other areas.

A less flexible rule

Mercury emissions from gold mines became an issue about 10 years ago when it became known that they were a significant pollutant. Most U.S. gold mines were located in Nevada, so the state decided to start a regulatory program for mercury emissions.

Section 112 (C) 6 of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review its regulations for controlling air pollutants every eight years and take steps as necessary to curb emissions of seven persistent toxins, including mercury.

Thus, the federal agency thought it was appropriate to at least consider drafting a regulation, according to an EPA staff scientist who asked to not be identified.

The EPA is currently analyzing data and considering three or four options, and will consult with its stakeholders, including Nevada's regulators, before it settles on a preferred option, he said.

"We're gathering information and studying what they've done in Nevada. To some extent, we're using the Nevada regulation as a model, but the Clean Air Act requires us to do things differently. The state has more flexibility," he said.

The EPA plans to propose a new regulation for mercury emissions in the air from gold mines within six to eight months, "maybe as early as October," the scientist said.

"It will apply to new and existing sources of emissions. It won't conflict with the Nevada regulations, but it will be different," he added.

New oversight for Alaska mines

Steve Borell, director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the EPA is currently working on about 50 new regulations for mining industry. "All of industry in the United States is under an attack of unbelievable proportions," he said.

As to a mercury emissions regulation, Borell said there is no question it will have an adverse impact on gold mining.

"They are seeking to create limits that cannot be met," he said. Borell also said he believes the overall objective of the EPA is to stop mining, altogether.

Alice Edwards, acting director of the Division of Air Quality at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said she was aware that the EPA is in the process of developing a national emission standard for hazardous air pollutants for gold mine ore processing facilities related to mercury emissions, but had no specifics on what is being considered.

"Alaska DEC does not have a similar regulation in place, so this would be a new requirement for the gold mining industry in Alaska," Edwards said.

Miner worked with regulators

In Nevada Queenstake voluntarily stopped mining and processing ore at Jerritt Canyon in August before the state environmental protection agency's order was satisfied.

The facility remained shut down while the new emission control systems were designed.

Staff from Queenstake and the NDEP worked together to resolve several air emission issues related to the roasting operation. The ductwork will be used in the installation of a calomel-based mercury control system to ensure that the company minimizes the amount of oxidized, or reactive, mercury released to the air.

Yukon-Nevada, which is also developing the Ketza River gold project in southern Yukon Territory, said Queenstake has successfully complied with other regulatory requirements for operation of the mine. While the Jerritt Canyon roasters are off-line to complete the required work, processing of ore already roasted and recovery of gold will continue, the company added.

Queenstake July 17 reported completion of the installation of the emissions control equipment and said it targeted July 20 as the date it would be ready to resume operations at Jerritt Canyon. Startup of the mill will require the finalization of a consent decree which the company said it was negotiating with the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection.


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