BLM denies mine cover-up, blames whistleblower for delays
RENO – Bureau of Land Management officials insisted Friday there’s “no cover-up” at a polluted Nevada mine and blamed cleanup delays on the ex-project manager who filed a federal whistleblower complaint.
A lawyer for whistleblower Earle Dixon said the environmental specialist was fired by bureaucrats who “shot the messenger” rather than respond to his concerns about radioactive materials and other toxic wastes at the former Anaconda copper mine near Yerington in northern Nevada.
Also Friday, a tribal leader defended Dixon, and leaders of a watchdog group said they relied on Dixon for more credible information about the mine’s dangers than was being disclosed by state regulators or Atlantic Richfield Co., the subsidiary of British Petroleum primarily responsible for the cleanup.
Arco and Nevada Division of Environmental Protection officials countered that the various agencies were working more closely on the cleanup at the 3,600-acre site since Dixon was fired Oct. 15.
Dixon’s firing was made public this week in an interview with The Associated Press after he filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Labor Department in San Francisco seeking more than $1 million in damages.
Dixon said BLM state director Bob Abbey fired him because Dixon insisted on stricter worker safety standards and publicized radiation, air and water pollution violations at the abandoned mine about 55 miles southeast of Reno.
His firing marks “an unprecedented political intervention in a hazardous waste cleanup operation and reflects retaliatory motive by the BLM state director,” said Mick Harrison, Dixon’s lead lawyer based in Bloomington, Ind.
“It confirms our fears that there has been an attempt to suppress information and suppress the cleanup process at the mine,” said Elyssa Rosen, executive director of the Great Basin Mine Watch group in Reno.
Dixon’s complaint said BLM responded to his concerns by ordering him not to speak to the media and censoring and editing his technical communications and memos.
BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said Friday that health and safety concerns have been paramount in the agency’s cleanup efforts. Dixon’s dismissal had nothing to do with his insistence on stricter safety measures, she said.
“There is no cover-up. All the data that has been generated has been provided to the public, provided to EPA and NDEP and put on the Web site,” Simpson told AP.
Dixon “was fired because he was not performing his duties appropriately,” she said. “He was failing to do his job. Little progress was being made cleaning up the site.”
Tests this summer found unusually high levels of radiation in soil samples at the mine. Earlier groundwater tests showed high concentrations of uranium – up to 200 times the U.S. drinking water standard.
BLM owns about half of the land at the mine site. Arco became responsible for most of the rest after the bankruptcy of the previous owner, Arimetco.
Dixon’s complaint accuses BLM and the state of kowtowing to Arco even when the company’s cleanup proposals were inadequate.
“It was Earle who was complaining that the site was not being cleaned up fast enough,” Harrison said.
“Management prevented the work from happening and now they’re complaining that because of Earle, the work didn’t get done.”
Dixon’s complaint said then-Environmental Protection Division Administrator Allen Biaggi wanted BLM to fire Dixon in May 2004 “because Dixon was perceived to not be a team player when Dixon accused NDEP of covering up and or conspiring to cover up politically unwelcome information about contamination.”