State environmental regulators studying uranium contamination at an old Nevada copper mine oppose making it a federal Superfund site despite growing evidence it's more polluted than they thought.
Officials with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection said they will meet with residents who live near the mine to explain the latest groundwater samples and respond to critics who want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take the lead in the cleanup of the 3,500-acre site near Yerington in northern Nevada.
"The state process we are going through is working," said Allen Biaggi, administrator of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.
"We have made some good strides on the property. We've got some cleanup already done," he told The Associated Press about the abandoned mine now owned by the Atlantic Richfield Co.
"Most importantly, the responsible party is paying the bills and moving forward with the assessments and ultimately with cleanup," he said. "As long as we have a responsible party and we are still making progress ... we can keep that Superfund tool in our pocket just in case we need it."
Superfund status would put EPA in charge of the cleanup and potentially make additional federal money available.
New tests made public this month show extremely high levels of uranium in groundwater beneath the old Anaconda copper mine that dates to 1953. One monitoring well had concentrations more than 200 times the EPA's standard for public drinking water.
Eight of 29 wells sampled outside the mine property also showed uranium concentrations near or above the standard. Arco has offered bottled water to those residences while testing continues.
Tom Myers, executive director of the Great Basin Mine Watch, thinks the contaminants are leaking off the mine site and EPA officials say it is possible.
"People don't need to panic but we really need to test every well within four miles of the mine," Myers said.
The EPA has criticized Arco and state environmental officials for not acting fast enough to do more testing needed for a comprehensive cleanup plan.
"We may feel a greater level of investigation is required to get a good handle on what is going on versus what the state thinks is necessary at this time," said Jim Sickles, a remedial project manager for EPA's regional office in San Francisco.
"NDEP thinks the stuff they are seeing in these wells may not actually be related to the mines. I could see the argument either way. But right now there is not enough information to clearly rule out the mine and I don't want to overlook something," Sickles said.
Nevada and Arco officials maintain the high readings most likely are due to high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity in uranium ore found across much of Nevada and the West.
Yerington City Manager Dan Newell said he's glad state officials called the meeting to help explain the so-called "background" levels of naturally occurring uranium around the community.
"I don't personally think it is coming from the mine," Newell said.
Biaggi thinks the uranium levels in domestic wells result from natural conditions partly because "we are not seeing the high levels we are seeing associated with the water back at the mine."
Still, it's important to notify residents and "let them make the decisions about what they want to do about that, whether it is considering treatment or bottled water or some other option," he said.
The Bureau of Land Management, which also has criticized the state's progress, does not support a Superfund listing.
"We want to see the site addressed. If the easiest way all the parties can live with is without listing, we are all for it," said Earle Dixon, a BLM environmental protection specialist in Carson City.
Dan Ferriter, Arco's environmental manager in charge of the site, said the biggest loser with a Superfund listing is the local community.
"Once you're called the `Yerington Superfund site' you can have a lot of impact on business, a lot of impact on property values," Ferriter said.
Officials for the state enviromental agency, Arco, EPA and the BLM each plan to make brief presentations before taking questions during a 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday at Casino West in Yerington.