Alaska, concerned about gold miners' health, to test them for mercury

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Sat Aug 25, 2012 1:27pm EDT

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska health officials, concerned about amateur miners seeking riches in a modern-day mini gold rush, plan to test prospectors in the town of Nome for mercury exposure for fear that archaic mining techniques may be inadvertently harming their bodies.

The Bering Sea port town of Nome has been a magnet this summer for gold prospectors, some of them with little experience, in a boom that state officials attribute in part to publicity from Discovery Channel's reality TV show "Bering Sea Gold" and other mining shows set in Alaska.

Modern miners may be putting themselves at risk by trying to recover gold from mercury-heavy sediments on the sea floor, said Ali Hamade, a state environmental public health manager. A century ago, it was common for miners in Nome to use mercury to recover gold. The gold was extracted while the mercury was left behind.

"Now when people look for gold, they could find mercury with it," he said, adding that mercury introduced into the environment from the early 20th century gold rush has sunk down as deep as bedrock and that digging might release the toxic metal.

The planned mercury screening is the latest in a series of government efforts to manage the boom in the remote town of 3,700 people 500 miles northwest of Anchorage that became famous for its raucous, historic gold rush over 100 years ago.

Modern miners in Nome use a variety of methods to draw up sediments that are screened for gold specks. Some dredge with boat-mounted excavators, while others use diving equipment to descend to the sea floor and suck up sediments with hoses or manually scoop them out. Some small-scale miners work with shovels and sluice boxes on the beach at the water's edge.

In liquid form, mercury binds with small gold particles, he said. The historic practice in Nome was for miners to heat mercury-gold mixtures, evaporating the liquid mercury to leave behind pure gold, said Hamade, who works for the state Department of Health and Social Services' epidemiology section.

Hamade said there were anecdotal reports that some modern-day Nome miners were doing the same thing, making use of residual mercury deposited in sediments by gold rush predecessors. The process is as dangerous to today's miners as it was to miners of yore, he said.

"If it's not in a well-ventilated area, they could be exposed to mercury fumes, and those could be toxic," he said. "When it's vapor, when it's fumes, you could inhale it, similar to any gas or dust that you may encounter."

PROSPECTING MINI-BOOM

Mercury is toxic and inhalation can harm nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, according to the World Health Organization. Inhaled mercury can be fatal, according to the WHO.

Health officials will begin voluntary tests next week to see if traces of mercury are in miners' urine, Hamade said. Elemental mercury is usually excreted after it spreads through the body, he said.

The state received 171 applications so far this year for permits to dredge for gold in the two Nome beach areas designated as recreational mining sites, said Brent Goodrum, director of the Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water.

That is twice as many permit applications as received in any previous year, he said, adding that applications were capped for the first time this year because the division imposed a deadline, Goodrum said.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the mining division, has issued numerous notices to gold-seekers, including a sharply worded notice advising that individual miners cannot replicate the "Bering Sea Gold" experience because Discovery Channel is using exploration rights through a state auction.

The show follows the exploits of four crews aboard dredging vessels used for relatively large-scale placer mining operations off Nome's coast. Discovery Channel media officials had no immediate comment.

Nome city officials this year also imposed some new rules for beach activities in response to what a municipal notice said were "several incidents of friction" between gold miners.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been also been trying to educate amateur miners after a miner from Montana drowned last year while dredging Nome waters. The Alaska state troopers and other agencies have also beefed up their services in Nome.

As in historic gold rush days, many would-be miners are failing to find riches, Goodrum said. About half the people who received permits have so far declined to venture out into the Bering Sea surf to dredge up the potentially gold-laden sediments, he said.

"Some folks have gotten out there and realized that it's a lot more challenging than what they saw on the show," he said. "It probably hasn't lived up to everyone's expectations."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)

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