Guinn may revisit Superfund status for mine
RENO – Pressured by Sen. Harry Reid and the Environmental Protection Agency, Gov. Kenny Guinn says he might reconsider his opposition to declaring a huge abandoned mine in northern Nevada a U.S. Superfund site.
“The governor is open minded and is receptive to the possibility of a Superfund listing as a result of the information that continues to come to light,” his spokesman, Greg Bortolin, told The Associated Press.
Guinn and state officials have opposed Superfund status, which would turn over the responsibility for the polluted mine site to the federal government.
But Reid has stepped up his call for the federal designation as new information emerges about the contamination at the former Anaconda copper mine at Yerington.
State regulators lack the muscle to force Atlantic Richfield Co. to clean up hundreds of acres of toxic waste bordering the rural agricultural community, some of it radioactive, Reid said.
“This is big business overwhelming a little state and the state doesn’t have the power to fight them,” said Reid, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
Arco, a subsidiary of British Petroleum, “is stonewalling the people of the state of Nevada and they are taking advantage of little Lyon County,” Reid told the AP.
Dan Ferriter, Arco’s environmental manager in charge of the site, took exception to Reid’s criticism. He said the cleanup already is subject to “fairly extreme” regulatory oversight.
“We are doing much, much more than would be required for a mine closure by the state of Nevada and we are doing more than we would at most Superfund sites,” Ferriter said Friday.
Federal experts said the recent discovery of unusually high levels of radiation in soil samples at the mine means it will take much more money, time and effort to clean up.
“We realize the cleanup is going to be much more significant than any of us anticipated,” said Bob Abbey, Nevada director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“It’s a whole new level,” said Earle Dixon, the BLM project manager.
Guinn remains convinced the state is up to the task as the lead enforcer at the polluted mine 55 miles southeast of Reno. But the Republican governor said in a meeting with state regulators last week that he would re-evaluate Superfund status if it meant more federal funds to help with the cleanup and it would better protect the health and safety of residents, Bortolin said.
Earlier groundwater tests in wells on the 3,600-acre site showed high concentrations of uranium – up to 200 times the U.S. drinking water standard, apparently the result of decades of chemical processing of heavy metals in leach ponds.
One new soil sample shows alpha radiation levels nearly 200 times more than natural “background” levels, and four other samples are in the range of 25 to 90 times normal, the BLM disclosed last month. More tests are pending.
“It showed us there is more technical complexity than originally thought,” Jim Sickles, EPA’s remedial project manager for the site, said Friday.
“These guys have filled the ponds with the stuff. … We have told the state that we still think (Superfund) listing is the most efficient way to handle the site.”
Guinn and most local politicians have opposed the designation because they think the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection is making progress, ARCO is cooperating and they fear a stigmatism of being labeled a Superfund site.
Leaders of an environmental watchdog group say the state repeatedly has ignored their pleas to fully exercise its legal powers to force Arco to accelerate the cleanup.
“The state hasn’t been doing it’s job”,” said Elysa Rosen, acting executive director of the Great Basin Mine Watch.
Reid said it’s become clear removal of the toxic wastes is too big of job for the state.
“I don’t know why the people of Yerington are afraid of this. I don’t know why the governor is afraid of it,” he said of a Superfund designation.
“This is a cesspool full of very, very toxic substances and (Arco) should write a check to clean it up. The only way they will do that is if it is declared a Superfund site,” he said.
Anaconda Copper Co. mined the site from 1953-78, extracting copper concentrate from ore rock using sulfuric acid leaching. Previously undisclosed internal documents publicized over the winter show company officials considered trying to produce yellowcake uranium commercially as a result of high levels of the radioactive material they were finding in the ponds in the 1970s and early 1980s.