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Despite decrease, Silver State still releasing toxins, EPA says

Although the Environmental Protection Agency reported Tuesday that Nevada’s overall toxic releases decreased by 10 percent last year, there’s still plenty of cancer-causing metals and minerals escaping to the air and water.

The Silver State topped the EPA’s list for mercury releases to the air, largely from precious-metal mining operations.

At the same time, National Park Service officials said they are grappling to meet a 2011 deadline to bring three water supply wells up to standard at Lake Mead National Recreation Area to comply with the EPA’s more stringent safe-drinking guideline for arsenic, a naturally occurring mineral.

Park Service spokesman Andrew Munoz said the agency is spending millions of dollars to build treatment facilities to remove excessive levels of arsenic from wells at Willow Beach and Temple Bar on the Arizona side of lakes Mohave and Mead, and downstream on Mohave in Nevada at Cottonwood Cove.

Those sites, particularly a well that supplies visitor camping, employee housing and restroom facilities at Willow Beach, 14 miles south of Hoover Dam, fail to meet the tighter arsenic standard set in 2006 but have been allowed to keep operating until treatment systems are in place.

“Right now they are drinking water with levels out of compliance with the EPA,” Munoz said, adding that “the park is not out of compliance with the rules.”

Life scientist Steve Spearman, who manages water and waste systems at the national recreation area, said a $3.8 million high-pressure membrane filtration system will be completed by next fall at Willow Beach to extract arsenic that’s been more than twice the allowable level.

“We have deadlines looming and we’re very anxious to meet those,” Spearman said.

Borderline concentrations of arsenic, a bladder carcinogen, will be removed through a cheaper, chemical-binding process at Cottonwood Cove and Temple Bar for a combined $3.7 million price tag by March 2011.

The projects are funded with money from the sale of public land in Southern Nevada.

Sampling results and public notices about the arsenic problem and the effort to resolve it have been posted at the affected locations, Spearman said.

Nine mining operations in central and northern Nevada run by Newmont, Barrick Gold Strike, Robinson Nevada, and Cortez along with the US Ecology hazardous waste facility near Beatty account for most of the state’s toxic releases, according to the EPA’s annual inventory.

The overall 10 percent decrease was attributable to less gold mining releases to land. In all 136 facilities in Nevada put out 202 million pounds of toxic chemical releases, making the state sixth in the nation for on-site and off-site releases.

The top five chemicals were lead, mercury and compounds of arsenic and zinc, and manganese.

Of the 91 million pounds of lead released, 99 percent stemmed from the metal mining industry.

Out of 151 facilities in the EPA’s Region 9, which includes Southwestern states, all but 1 percent of mercury releases came from Nevada mining facilities. The 5.4 million pounds of mercury releases reported for last year was 794,000 pounds less than in 2007, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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