A federal crackdown on gold miners who pollute streams has led to a proposed new set of mining rules and a prediction that stiffer regulations will lead to wholesale mine closings.
The rules unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency would affect 600 gold placer mines in the United States. Four hundred of them are in Alaska, where gold mining is a $175 million business, according to the Alaska Miners Association, which opposes the rules. The other 200 mines are in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Placer miners scoop up a soil-gravel-gold mixture and flush out the gold by washing everything else back into the stream. The EPA wants the miners to use settling ponds or to recycle their waste water instead of pumping it directly into streams.
"There's no doubt it's going to put the mom-and-pop mines we have here in Alaska out of business," said Jim Jinks, director of the 2,000-member Alaska Miners Association.
But the EPA sees it differently. The agency says placer mines in the nine Western states account for 8 million tons of stream pollution by arsenic, mercury and various solids. Al Ewing, assistant regional administrator, said mines will close because of depressed gold prices, not because of rules to protect water quality.