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EPA, NV may clash again over old mine, Superfund

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SCOTT SONNER | March 26, 2011 03:01 PM EST | AP


YERINGTON, Nev. — Federal regulators who've spent a decade assessing the uranium and other toxic wastes seeping into the water table at an old Anaconda copper mine in northern Nevada have concluded the pollution can't be cleaned up without adding the vast, abandoned site to the U.S. Superfund's National Priority List.

Environmental Protection Agency officials say the designation would trigger funds to cover most of the $40 million it is expected to cost to begin removing contaminants from the most polluted part of the World War II-era mine. The site covers five square miles next to the rural town of Yerington, about 65 miles southeast of Reno.

But the work isn't likely to happen if the state of Nevada balks, as it did before when EPA pursued Superfund status for the mine in 2001.

In a rare case of state opposition to Superfund assistance, then-Gov. Kenny Guinn and his Division of Environmental Protection cited a host of legal, financial and scientific reasons in saying no thanks.

In addition to fears about the impact Superfund status would have on property values, there were worries a precedent could be set by federal intervention in the mining-friendly state that is the world's sixth biggest producer of gold.

EPA has not yet formally notified Nevada's new Gov. Brian Sandoval that it wants to try again to list the site. Such a listing is also opposed by the parties responsible for cleanup at neighboring sections of the mine – Atlantic Richfield Co. and its parent, BP America.

But EPA officials told The Associated Press that unless the mine is designated a Superfund site none of the other alternatives being examined will qualify for the millions of dollars needed for the first critical stage in the most radioactive part of the mine.

"It's kind of fish or cut bait now," EPA project manager Jerlene Johnson told AP. "Unless we can get the site listed, we don't see any way to get the cleanup done."

EPA has been assessing and working with the state and others since the 1990s to try to contain the towering waste piles, open pit lake and old leach ponds spread across an area the size of 3,000 football fields.

Cost projections vary widely but soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up all the hazardous waste site-wide, including the uranium, arsenic and other hazardous metals that have been leaking into neighbors' wells.

More than 100 residents filed a $5 million class-action suit in federal court in Reno in January accusing Atlantic Richfield and BP of intentionally and negligently concealing the extent of the contamination for decades. They say their wells have been polluted by the toxic plume of groundwater slowly migrating off the site partially owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Neighboring Native American tribes have long advocated Superfund listing, and say they are considering legal action based on claims the U.S. government has an obligation to clean up their reservation lands regardless of the state's position.

The class-action lawsuit is the first legal wrangling here since a former BLM cleanup supervisor won a federal whistleblower case in 2008. Earle Dixon, a hydrologist, proved the BLM fired him partly as a result of pressure applied to the mine-permitting agency by politicians upset that he was publicizing high radiation readings previously kept secret at Anaconda.

The hottest spikes came from the area EPA is targeting now for cleanup. It's where uranium was left as a byproduct of processing copper with sulfuric acid in dirt-bottomed, leach ponds lacking the synthetic lining used today.

Neither Atlantic Richfield nor BP is directly responsible for that processing area. It's on property that belonged to Arimetco before the Arizona-based copper processor went bankrupt and abandoned the site in 1999 – leaving it largely in EPA's hands.

Tom Mueller, a spokesman for BP America in Houston, said in an e-mail to AP that re-mining the Yerington site in concert with reclamation "presents a better solution than NPL listing both from a local economic and from an environmental perspective."

The EPA is revisiting Superfund status because Congress has dictated that no EPA money be spent on actual removal of waste unless it's on the NPL, said Andrew Helmlingler, agency attorney for the site.

A new wave of EPA sampling a year ago found 79 percent of the wells tested north of the mine had dangerous levels of uranium or arsenic or both that made the water unsafe to drink. Uranium was detected at more than 10 times the legal drinking water standard in one monitoring well a half mile north of the mine, and at more than 100 times the standard at the mine itself.

Officials for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection refused to speculate on whether the state again would oppose NPL designation before seeing a formal proposal.

"We haven't been asked," NDEP spokesman Vince Guthreau said.

Part of the problem would be coming up with the 10 percent state share of the funding given that Nevada's Legislature is facing a $1 billion-plus budget deficit.

"We would like to basically examine all avenues on behalf of the citizens of the state of Nevada," said Jim Najima, chief of NDEP's Bureau of Corrective Actions. "But if they are right and it is $40 million, that means the state has to come up with $4 million and I don't have $4 million."

Yerington Paiute Tribal Chairman Elwood L. Emm advocates NPL status along with the Walker River Paiute Tribe and Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada. He doesn't understand why the state doesn't jump at the chance for EPA to foot the bulk of the bill while also boosting local jobs and tax revenue.

In addition to enforcing environmental laws, the tribes maintain EPA has a trust obligation to protect them under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

EPA officials won't speculate on how the agency will proceed if the tribes and state remain divided.

"States and tribes disagree all the time but I'm not aware of anything like this over Superfund," said Dietrick McGinnis, an environmental consultant for the tribes. "It is so rare for a state not to want a site be listed. It's much more frequent that a state wants to add a site to the list and EPA disagrees."

What if the state again fights listing?

"It just means it doesn't get cleaned up by the federal government," Helmlinger said. "We can't make them clean it up."