Officials tour abandoned mine as Superfund designation looms
GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – EPA officials toured an abandoned sulfur mine in the Sierra Nevada Tuesday, trying to persuade California and Nevada politicians that labeling it one of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites is the best way to get it cleaned up.
Keith Takata, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Division in San Francisco, told them that designating Leviathan Mine as a Superfund site would provide more money and resources to control its pollution.
”Superfund has the tools,” Takata said while inspecting the site, a vast open pit of gray rock and sand carved into the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada at an altitude of about 7,000 feet.
The mine is in remote Alpine County, Calif., but Nevadans suffer more from its water pollution, since the toxic soup of acid and heavy metals drains in their direction.
Takata praised recent efforts by California’s Lahontan Region Water Quality Board to treat acid mine drainage accumulated in holding ponds at the site, but these ponds have overflowed due to heavy spring snowmelt in past years.
Also, the ponds can’t keep groundwater and mountain rainfall from being contaminated in the first place by contact with the pit, which has been partially filled with gravel, sand and treated sludge.
”There’s a lot of drainage that’s not being collected,” he said.
The EPA likely will decide this week whether to formally propose the mine as a Superfund site – a designation reserved for the most polluted areas in the country.
That prospect has raised concerns among officials in Nevada’s Douglas County, who fear the tarnish of a Superfund designation, if it includes the Carson River, could ultimately harm the local economy, which is dependent on agriculture and tourism.
Takata sought to allay their fears, saying the designation would likely focus around the mine itself, which is 25 miles from Gardnerville, the nearest significant population.
Runoff from the mine has killed all aquatic life in Leviathan and Bryant creeks, but the EPA has said that by the time the tainted water reaches the Carson River, Douglas County’s main water supply, it is so diluted that it poses no health hazards.
Alpine County, Calif., officials were noncommittal as to whether they’d support or oppose the listing. Herman Zellmer, chairman of the Alpine County Board of Supervisors, said any decision would come only after extensive public comment.
Harold Singer, executive director of the Lahontan water board, said he has discussed the issue with Gov. Gray Davis, but would not comment when asked for details on California’s position
While the EPA seeks input from state and local governments before pursuing a Superfund listing, Takata said California has not responded to numerous letters from the agency seeking input. He said the agency would proceed without it.
An aide to Gov. Davis didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to a request from The Associated Press for comment on Takata’s complaints.
Superfund status generally means previous owners can be held responsible for the cost of cleaning up the site. In the case of the Leviathan Mine, there are plenty of potential targets.
The mine opened in 1863 to provide copper sulfate for processing silver ore in Virginia City during the Comstock era. It closed in 1872 and remained dormant until 1935, when it reopened as a sulfur mine operated by Texas Gulf Sulfur Co., and Calpine Corp. Mining again ceased in 1941.
Open pit sulfur mining resumed about 10 years later when the mine was purchased by Anaconda Co., which later became a subsidiary of Atlantic Richfield Co.
No active mining has taken place since 1962.
In 1978, the California Regional Water Quality Board received a $3.7 million grant to address pollution from the mine. Around the same time, the board negotiated a $2.3 million payment from ARCO, settling a state lawsuit threat.
California took over the site in 1983.
Though California’s settlement with ARCO included a clause releasing the company from future liability, Takata said the provision would have no standing under a Superfund designation and that previous owners could be held responsible.
”It is somewhat heartening to hear … that the folks that did this may actually have to pay for it,” said Douglas County Commission Chairman Jacques Etchegoyhen.