BLM Returns Clean-Up Money

By: AP
By: AP

While state and federal regulators were scrambling to find money to start cleaning up one of Nevada's most contaminated mines, the Bureau of Land Management returned $700,000 that had been earmarked for the job that may end up costing more than $100 million, documents show.
BLM officials in Nevada told agency budget officers in November
2004 the $700,000 wasn't needed because one of the responsible
parties, Atlantic Richfield Co., had agreed to do additional
monitoring of air and water pollution at the former Anaconda copper
mine on the edge of Yerington, according to documents obtained by
The Associated Press.
Since then, however, Atlantic Richfield has come under fire from
local residents for failing to adequately address the
contamination, which includes numerous heavy metals and radioactive
waste apparently produced as a byproduct of the copper processing
decades ago.
Critics say the new disclosure raises questions about BLM's
claims it lacks the funds needed to put up new fences and boost
security at the 6-square-mile mine. They say the lost money means
further delay in the cleanup already expected to take more than a
decade, with projected costs ranging anywhere from $100 million to
$1 billion.
"It really makes me angry," said Peggy Pauly, who lives next
to the mine and has organized a group of concerned citizens.
"This site really needs to be investigated and studied to
document the extent of the contamination and a lot of that could
already have been done with this money," she said.
AP obtained the documents from lawyers for the Washington-based
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. They represent
the BLM's former manager of the mine site, Earle Dixon, in a
whistleblower lawsuit claiming he was fired because he was speaking
out publicly about the seriousness of health and safety risks at
the mine.
"Because of political pressure, BLM punted away timely,
guaranteed protections for Nevadans," said Richard Condit, PEER's
general counsel.
"BLM gave away a bird in the hand for a promise by an oil
company that it would finally take some responsibility for the
site," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumed lead control of
the site last year in an agreement with the Nevada Division of
Environmental Protection, which previously controlled the mine and
long had opposed EPA's desire to declare it a Superfund site.
EPA currently is negotiating with Atlantic Richfield the terms
of work plans and a feasibility study to assess the contamination
and determine if the mine is responsible for contaminants that have
been found in domestic wells off site.
That was some of the work that originally was to have been
covered by the $700,000 in hazardous materials funds the BLM had
requested in 2003 and 2004.
BLM officials said Dixon was dismissed in October 2004 because
lead oversight of the cleanup was shifting from its Carson City
field office, where Dixon was based, to state headquarters in Reno
where the state BLM director could be more directly involved.
But Dixon claims in his lawsuit it was because BLM was under
pressure from the mining industry and local politicians who feared
Dixon's warnings could lead to a Superfund listing that would harm
neighboring land values.
Dixon specifically had been involved in trying to find ways to
secure additional money for BLM to expedite assessments of the
site, where tests show high levels of radiation in soil samples and
high concentrations of uranium in groundwater wells on site - up to
200 times the U.S. drinking water standard.
At Dixon's urging, BLM asked for $500,000 in the form of its
budget request for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2004 and
previously had received $205,000 as a supplemental appropriation
for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2003.
BLM said in an agency budget memo in August 2004 the mine site
is "of great concern, as evidence of the potential risk to human
health and the environment from identified contaminants of concern
found at the site is mounting."
But Robert Kelso, the lead for BLM's hazardous materials program
in Nevada, said in an e-mail to Kris Doebbler in BLM's regional
office in Denver on Nov. 29, 2004 that Atlantic Richfield had
agreed to do additional monitoring of groundwater and provide air
monitoring at six locations as early as 2005. He said the company
also had proposed additional work to cap areas of blowing dust on
the site.
"With ARC's willingness to perform this additional work, we do
not expect to need the $500K projected for FY05 - nor $205K from
(a) supplemental authorization for FY04, a `cost avoidance' in
excess of $700K," Kelso wrote.
BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said she could not comment directly
on the critics' claims because the matter is in litigation. She
said that the documents were "part of an ongoing deliberation over
funding" at the mine, where BLM owns about half the land.
"Whether or not it represents the final decisions, I can't
comment on," Simpson said. "Funding in the federal government is
an ongoing process and situations change over time."
Officials for BP America, Atlantic Richfield's parent company,
did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Mick Harrison, one of Dixon's lawyers, said Dixon and others at
BLM were "working as hard as they could" to obtain emergency
funding for the cleanup.
"They managed against all odds to get several hundred thousand
dollars on short notice from the federal government to clean up
this emergency, then Earle gets fired, everybody in the field
office is taken off the project... and the money is given back,"
Harrison said.
"They apparently were concerned about the real consequences of
documenting the contamination," he said.
Bob Boyce, tribal manager of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, said
the mine's impact on the local community is "much too significant
for BLM to so casually let $700,000 in funding go so easily back to
Washington."
"When those of us involved are fighting tooth and nail for
every dime we can get to investigate and remediate this site, it's
a sad situation."


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