Thursday, August 18, 2005

Avoiding Confusion

Early this year, the U.S. Geological Survey found that environmental levels of mercury in the Great Salt Lake were among the highest ever recorded by federal scientists. Previously, the fanciful-yet-conventional wisdom had been that the GSL was a "natural disposal system" for contamination of this sort. In reality, it appears that the unique conditions in the GSL actually speed the conversion of inorganic mercury to more readily absorbed and bioaccumulated organic mercury.

An environmental group called the Great Salt Lakekeeper wants to perform an independent analysis of mercury levels in fish from streams that feed the Great Salt Lake. The analysis would be performed by a federally certified lab in North Carolina. However, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in conjunction with the Division of Water Quality, has refused to give the group a permit to catch fish for the survey, largely on the grounds that conflicting results might "confuse" the public.

That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Perhaps the results of independent testing would be unwelcome in some quarters? Hard to say. Local point sources for mercury are many and varied, but a fair amount of people are blaming gold-mining operations in Nevada.

Mercury is floating out of smokestacks into the atmosphere from a cluster of gold mines near Elko that account for as much as 11 percent of the nation's total mercury emissions. Utah's mountain high country, its urban heart and the irreplaceable ecology of the Great Salt Lake are directly downwind.
I'll note, in passing, that Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-NV) - an anti-environmental zealot who was a co-author of the ludicrous Mercury in Perspective report - seems to have a amicable relationship with gold-mining concerns...including the Newmont Mining Corp, which owns about 3,000 square miles of Nevada land along the Interstate 80 corridor, and is one of the country's worst emitters of mercury.

Recently, the Idaho Conservation League performed independent tests that suggested that air coming from the direction of Nevada's mines had significantly elevated levels of mercury.
Glenn Miller, a University of Nevada mining expert, praised the environmental group's work, despite its limitations. He was briefed on it and called the data the first of its kind. "It was important data," he said, "and the question ought to be asked why hasn't anybody else been doing that."
Maybe no one else did it because, like Utah's Division of Water Quality, they had neither the inclination nor the equipment. A fairly staggering article from The Salt Lake Tribune, dated July 6, 2005, says:
The state Department of Environmental Quality hopes soon to buy mercury analysis equipment for the state lab....After that, the Water Quality division can begin the rule-making process for mercury testing, which will involve public hearings and a formal request to the state Water Quality Board. The testing program could be in place by next spring. The main reason the state hasn't already set up protocols is because officials haven't seen evidence it was necessary.
Fair enough. If memory serves, Utah and Wyoming are the only Western states without protocols in place for issuing public advisories on mercury in fish. Given the nature of the threat - which includes unpredictable patterns of contamination from global sources, in addition to contamination from neighboring states - their worldview is a wee bit too insouciant for my taste.

All things considered, it's hard to see why allowing independent testing would be more productive of public confusion - or panic, or suspicion, or anger - than forbidding it.

1 comment:

roger said...

it is difficult to resist sarcasm when a public agency insists that more actual information will "confuse the public."