One Score and One Year Ago…

One score and one year ago, our EPA brought forth a new regulation to bring upon clean air and acid free rain, that would take until December 21, 2011 to be brought into effect.

21 years after being first mandated by Congress, the EPA released air pollution regulations that require power plants to lower dangerous smokestack emissions.

Giving the companies three years, power plants have to cut the emissions of 84 different toxic chemicals to match the 12% of the cleanest plants–however the EPA has made it clear that if more time is “necessary” to achieve these goals, it is available.

This is an important regulation as power plants emit half of the mercury and cause more than 75% of the acid gas emissions in the US, according to the EPA. The EPA estimates that by cutting these toxic emissions it will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms a year.

Currently, only 12% of the nations power plants meet these standards (hence them being the mark others strive for) while 48% have some, if not all, the necessary technologies in order to achieve these standards. Unfortunately, the left over 40% have no technology in place to just flip the switch on. As Lisa Jackson (EPA Administrator) told USA Today, “[they] have done nothing, they have no controls, they emit unlimited amounts of pollutants, they have no technology in place.”

But what would regulations be without cockamamie claims to try to avoid them?

In attempts to thwart EPA regulations, power plants have been arguing a number of angles against the regulations from: it will make electricity more expensive and less reliable; to, it will bring economic hardships.

Perhaps if families don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars a year in medical expenses for the toxic pollutants they’re exposed to in the air they breath and water they drink, they could afford to spend a little more to pay for energy. In theory I could see how electricity reliability might decrease for a period of time with construction or alterations of the plants, but that isn’t a long term problem. In fact, the EPA and Department of Energy don’t foresee any problems with regards to power failures or blackouts.

As far as economic hardships go, the EPA estimates that with manufacturing, engineering, installation, and maintenance, pollution standards will provide employment for thousands potentially including 46,000 short term construction jobs. Now, unless the power plants are referring to economic hardships they themselves will suffer for having to pay for these regulations…I’m not sure I can sympathize with their qualms.

Though these regulations will decrease the amount of pollutants being spewed into the environment, they won’t get rid of them all together (after all there’s no such thing as “clean coal“). And since the EPA doesn’t seem hell-bent on enforcing the three year timeline for having the necessary technology in place to reduce said emissions, in theory power plants could stretch actual implementation out for decades–and by that time most of these power plants will have reached the end of their useful lives as they’re (on average) 50 years old–I’m not sure what they’re complaining about.

The Darker Side of our Golden Commodities

“Oh, boy,” Newmont Mining Corporation must be saying, “The people of Cajamarca are at it Protesters against Minas Conga again.”

According to Business Week, Newmont’s $4.8 billion construction on a gold deposit was put on hold yesterday due to the presence of 2,000 people–some riding in on horseback–to protest against the mine.

Adjacent to Yanacocha Mine, Minas Conga sits on gold deposits that are estimated to produce between 580,000 and 680,000 ounces of gold per year and considered to be vital to Peru’s mining industry, as well as local economies. The people of Cajarmarca and the surrounding highlands should be thrilled. Right?

Yanacocha Map Perhaps a little background on Cajamarca is needed to understand why the locals may be a bit hesitant to have yet another mine take root in their communities. Yanacocha, located in the Norther Peruvian Andres, nestled high in the mountains, was opened by Newmont Mining company in 1993 and has since produced 26 million ounces of gold and is the most profitable mine in the Andes–hitting $22.3 billion in total assets in 2009.

So, why aren’t the people of Cajamarca thrilled?

Yanacocha MineAccording to Oxfam America, mining is one of the most energy and water intensive industries, as well as one of the most dangerous professions. Oxfam America reports that  79 tonnes of toxic waste is generated for every ounce of gold extracted. For those who don’t want to do the math that leaves the Yanacocha mine with about 2 billion tonnes of waste including (but not limited to) mercury, cyanide, zinc, copper, iron, and aluminum which is left over from the heap leaching process that separated gold from the surrounding rocks. These heavy metals reach the nearby communities through air, water, and soil pollution. But don’t worry, it’s all put into dams called tailing ponds, which like the mine, sit at the top of the watershed…in the seismically active Andes mountain range…

From cyanide and other heavy metals looming over their heads (literally), and contamination of air, water, and soil, the people of Cajamarca have another reason to despise Yanacocha’s current presence, in addition to Minas Conga impending one. A mine is unyielding and ever present. The sound of mine blasts reverberate down the canyons like an impending storm. Day and night, mining trucks troll through the streets carrying materials to and from the mines. This might not seem so bad to some (especially in comparison to the other problems a mine induces), but if you heard these Toyota six pack diesel trucks, you might think otherwise. Aside from the truck’s noise, many of them carry mercury left over from heap leaching.

In June, 2000, a truck carrying mercury from Yanacocha had a container leak, spilling an estimated 300 pounds of  mercury. In villages like Cajamarca, little is known about the adverse effects of mercury on human health, and many villagers not only collected the liquid mercury droplets, but burned them in their homes. Newmont Corporation offered reimbursements for the mercury’s return, which sent villagers to the streets to scour for any remaining mercury. More than 1,000 people were diagnosed with mercury poisoning. Now when asked, the people of Cajamarca say mercury kills their babies, causes cancer, as well as other fatal diseases–not entirely false accusations.

Like things weren’t bad enough already, mercury bioaccumulates, or increases in concentration in organisms over time. Mercury builds up in food chains through smaller organisms being eaten by larger ones–consequently, the organism highest in the food chain has the highest concentration of mercury–these animals are usually consumed by humans, posing a serious threat to their health and well being.

Health ailments from the mercury spill remain today among community members. Events that had never occurred in the town are becoming more prevalent: children being born without fingers or toes, miscarriages occurring at alarming rates. Children suffer disproportionately with chronic problems such as nosebleeds, respiratory infections, loss of hearing and or sight, migraines, and the inability to concentrate. As mercury is a common toxic byproduct of gold extraction, it’s not hard to see why people are protesting the construction of Minas Conga.

Because the mines are located at the tops of watersheds, villagers and farmers are concerned that the mine will dry up water sources, and there is the risk that what water they do receive will be contaminated. Though Newmont claims its operations adhere to strict environmental regulations, Oxfam America reports, “The [mining] engineers tell us there is water, and no pollution, but we know the land does not produce as it used to, and there is less water than ever,” says a 24 year old from Bajo Porcon, a village halfway between Cajamarca and the mine.

Though extractive industries entered Latin American countries like Peru under the guise of providing development, has any actually occurred? Yes, corporations like Newmont have provided roads, schools and medical facilities to Cajamarca, but would they be better off not having these luxuries but clean water to drink, clean air to breath, and clean soil to grow crops in?

There is a darker side to our golden commodities, and it’s no wonder people from Cajamarca aren’t thrilled with the prospect of another mine. Though Newmont has halted construction for the time being, it’s only a matter of time until Minas Conga is up and running.

Minas Conga Protesters

Photo Credits: Servicio de Informacion Grufides, Bullion Street, Global Voices Online, New York Times