RENO - A new federal reporting requirement earned the mining industry the distinction of being the worst polluter in the nation - an unwelcome label it's working hard to shed.
As soon as the mining industry had to file a toxic release inventory with the Environmental Protection Agency, it found itself in the company of belching industrial smokestacks and leaking chemical plants.
Miners say it's all on paper since they're just moving rocks around - even ones that contain hazardous material - according to a very strict set of guidelines.
''The mining industry has had a lot of concern about it. We don't want people to be concerned,'' said Doug Hock of Newmont Mining Corp. in Denver.
''While we are moving this rock, and it's true that it's exposed to the elements - to air and water - it's managed and contained on site and we follow very stringent state and federal regulations.''
Environmentalists agree that ore is benign underground, but contend bringing it up, crushing it and piling it is an open invitation to environmental degradation.
''They're moving rock from below the surface, where it is isolated from the environment, isolated from the air, isolated from surface water, they're bringing it to the surface, they're crushing it into gravel- and sand-size material,'' said Tom Myers, director of the Great Basin Mine Watch.
''You're setting it where rain can run through it and leach arsenic and mercury and selenium - everything that's in it. You're making it probably a 100,000 more times accessible to the environment.''
Water running through crushed rock created one of the nation's worst environmental disasters, the recently designated Superfund site at the Leviathan Mine in California's Alpine County. High in the hills, the long-closed sulfur mine sends a yellowish-orange stain pouring out of the Sierra into western Nevada's Douglas County in times of heavy runoff.
The toxic stream of heavy metals has killed all aquatic life in a nearby creek and downstream residents worry of more serious consequences.
''Crushed debris spread over 250 acres made a big difference,'' EPA remedial project manager Kevin Mayer said at the agency's first public Leviathan Mine hearing last week. ''There was just a lot more chemical runoff than would happen from water going through rocks.''
This was the first year miners had to submit a report to the EPA's 11-year-old toxic release inventory. The results put mines at No. 1 on the EPA's 1998 hot list at 3.5 billion pounds - well above chemical plants and smoky coal-fired power facilities at 2.8 billion pounds.
The Kennecott Utah Copper Mine near Salt Lake City was listed as the biggest polluter at 405 million pounds in 1998. Barrick Goldstrike Mines Inc. north of Carlin was second at 398 million pounds.
Newmont's Nevada total was 433.6 million pounds from four different mines.
Nevada mining officials criticized the reports, saying the numbers give a distorted impression of potential harm because most toxic materials are naturally occurring in rocks mined for gold and other precious metals.
''We're concerned that because of these big numbers, suddenly it looks like people are at risk and that is not the case,'' said Russell Fields, executive director of the Nevada Mining Association.
''It paints an unrealistic picture. It is one of the concerns the hardrock mining industry has had in being included'' in the EPA's Toxic Releases Inventory, he said.
Nevada ranks third in the world in gold production behind South Africa and Australia. All of the toxic releases in Nevada are under permit and comply with regulations, Fields said.
Felicia Marcus, the EPA's regional director, said each pound of toxic release is not necessarily alike.
''For example, a chemical released from waste rock is fundamentally different from a release through a smokestack, but each has important environmental consequences to be aware of,'' she said.
''In Nevada, we're very fortunate to not have a lot of rain, not a lot of water, not a lot of dissolving action on these rocks,'' he said.
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