RENO — The world’s two largest gold-mining companies have agreed to pay nearly $600,000 in combined penalties in a deal with U.S. and Nevada environmental regulators that signals more stringent enforcement of pollution laws in the state that leads the nation in gold production.
Newmont USA is paying $395,000 and Barrick Goldstrike Mines $196,000 as part of an agreement with the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to settle allegations they violated hazardous waste laws with mercury releases recorded during inspections at two huge open-pit mines in northeast Nevada dating to 2007.
The companies have maintained they didn’t break any laws based on the way the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection enforced clean water protections for three decades.
“Under the consent decree, Barrick does not admit to any violation or offense, but we do agree to pay the civil penalties to both EPA and NDEP,” said Louis Schack, the Salt Lake City-based director of communications for Barrick Gold of North America.
The EPA said both mines near Carlin about 270 miles east of Reno — Newmont’s Quarry and Barrick’s Goldstrike mine — “illegally treated and disposed of” toxic waste without the required permit after failing to identify the materials as federally regulated hazardous waste.
Mercury releases in the waste stream exceeded safe limits under U.S. laws intended to minimize the risks to human health and the environment, the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney for Nevada said in joint civil complaints filed Feb. 26 in U.S. District Court in Reno.
Conservationists long have argued that mercury releases at Nevada mines should be regulated under federal Superfund laws, not just the Clean Water Act as enforced by the state. Higher exposures to mercury can harm kidneys, result in respiratory failure and sometimes even death, according to the EPA.
John Hadder, director of the Reno-based Great Basin Resource Watch, said the new consent decree puts to rest the mines’ claims that they can mix mercury-laden wastes with other wastes without a permit under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
“EPA and NDEP see it different,” Hadder said Wednesday. “Barrick and Newmont knowingly disposed of highly toxic mercury and lead to avoid treatment.”
The agency acknowledged in the civil complaints that the mines believed air-pollution controls for the treatment of bi-products from mercury were exempt from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It said the state has agreed with that interpretation in the past, believing “its interpretation was consistent with EPA guidance, and Newmont relied on the state’s interpretation and operated the facility in good faith on that basis and in accordance with its state water pollution control act permit.”
Barrick, with headquarters in Toronto, is the biggest gold producer in the world, and the Denver-based Newmont is second. Only seven countries produced more gold than Nevada in 2013.
Under the new regulatory regime, unless otherwise exempted, the wastes in question must be “henceforth managed as RCRA hazardous waste,” Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Administrator Colleen Cripps said in a “guidance document” issued earlier this month.
Newmont spokeswoman Mary Korpi said the consent decree recognizes the company’s discharges “were and remain stringently regulated under its Nevada State Water Pollution Control permit (and) that Newmont acted in good faith throughout in its management of these waste streams and in its dealings with the state and the U.S.”
Schack said the agreement “sustains NDEP’s authority to regulate gold mining facilities in Nevada.”
“Not a significant change,” he said about the impact of the additional oversight. Schack said it has “no direct implications” for any operations outside Nevada.