RENO, Nev. -- Conservationists are hailing a new federal rule to cut emissions of the toxic metal mercury from the nation's gold mines, calling it a long overdue measure to protect the health of people and the environment.
The regulations announced Friday will reduce airborne mercury pollution from the mines to about 1,200 pounds a year, a 77 percent reduction from 2007 levels, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The rule represents the first national standard for mercury air emissions from gold mines, the seventh-largest source of such pollution in the country.
Fourteen of the nation's 20 or so gold mines are in Nevada, the richest gold-mining state in the country. The rule also affects mines in Alaska, California, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Washington.
"It's high time the gold industry is required to limit mercury emissions that have long been a danger to children's health," said Bonnie Gestring, spokeswoman for Earthworks, an environmental group focused on mining issues. "The industry has been enjoying record profits while releasing needlessly high amounts of mercury pollution."
Louis Schack, spokesman for Barrick Gold of North America, said his company was actively involved in the process leading up to the new regulations.
"But we will have to review the rule further before we can say anything definitive about its possible impact," he said.
Omar Jabara, spokesman for Newmont Mining Corp., did not return calls Friday.
The regulations will lower emissions and protect the health of people in Idaho and Utah who live downwind from Nevada mines, said Justin Hayes, of the Idaho Conservation League.
After being released into the atmosphere from the mines, mercury transforms into toxic methylmercury in the environment and builds up in the food chain.
The emissions have been suspected of making some fish and waterfowl in Idaho and Utah so polluted with methylmercury they are unsafe to eat. Children and women of child-bearing age are most at risk.
"The EPA's new rule is critically important to protecting the health of our children from mercury poisoning," Hayes said. "Yes, it will cost the companies a little extra money, but it is affordable and our kids are worth it."
The EPA estimates the capital cost of controls at $36.5 million initially and $9.1 million a year. Both existing and new mines will have three years to install pollution control equipment -- mainly carbon absorber beds -- to meet the new standard.
Of the 12 largest sources of mercury air pollution among U.S. gold mines, eight are in Nevada, according to Earthworks. The state is the world's sixth-largest gold producer behind China, South Africa, Russia, Australia and Peru.
Some Nevada mines already have made significant progress in reducing mercury emissions under a state program, according to EPA. The state of Nevada began requesting voluntary reductions in emissions in 2001, and adopted rules in 2006 requiring gold mines to use pollution scrubbers and filters.
EPA has reported a roughly 50 percent reduction in mercury air pollution from Nevada gold mines in 2009 from the previous year.
"Because our Nevada operations are already regulated under the very rigorous Nevada program, we believe we are well prepared to achieve compliance with the federal (program)," Barrick's Schack said.
Some Nevada mines already meet the new national standard, while others will have to install equipment, EPA officials said. While the agency believes the new standard will further reduce emissions in Nevada, others were unconvinced.
"It remains to be seen how much this will further reduce mercury air pollution in the state," said Dr. Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. "But the new rules are important because they provide nationwide standards."