The Senate's second ranking Democrat wants the Environmental Protection Agency to declare a contaminated Nevada mine a Superfund site and take charge of the cleanup because the state is dragging its feet.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid "has long felt that listing the mine as a Superfund site would be the best way to protect residents," press secretary Tessa Hafen said Thursday from Washington.
The former Anaconda copper mine bordering the northern Nevada town of Yerington is contaminated with uranium, arsenic and other pollutants that federal officials, residents and environmentalists say could threaten nearby groundwater supplies.
Reid formally proposed Superfund status last month in a letter to Gov. Kenny Guinn, saying he wanted to work with him to transfer cleanup of the site to the EPA.
The current arrangement with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection in the lead role "has led to nearly two decades of mismanagement and cleanup delays at the site," Reid wrote in a copy of the Feb. 6 letter obtained by The Associated Press.
"I am deeply concerned by the lack of progress at the site," Reid said.
"I believe that site investigation - and, ultimately, site remediation - can more effectively be managed by EPA under the Superfund program than by NDEP."
Hafen acknowledged that Reid remains open to exploring other options to clean up the 3,500-acre site that was one of the country's largest copper producers from 1953-79.
Recently discovered documents dating to the 1970s and 1980s show the concentration of uranium - a byproduct of processing the copper - was so great at the site that Anaconda considered producing yellowcake uranium commercially for use as nuclear reactor fuel.
Tests conducted in December found extremely high levels of uranium in groundwater beneath the mine.
One monitoring well had concentrations more than 200 times the EPA's drinking water standard. Eight of 29 wells sampled outside the mine property also showed uranium concentrations near or above the standard. More tests are planned.
Superfund status would potentially make more federal money available for the cleanup.
But state environmental officials, who began managing the abandoned site in 2000, said they oppose Superfund designation largely because they are pleased with the cooperation of the Atlantic Richfield Co., which now owns the mine.
"Superfund listing is not in the best interest of the community or the environment as long as we have the responsible party cooperating," said Jennifer Carr, supervisor of the remediation branch of the state's Bureau of Corrective Actions.
"We believe we are making progress and that a change in the process at this time would cause additional delays," she said.
NDEP Administration Allen Biaggi said he believes substantial progress already has been made in the cleanup of the mine but said he takes Reid's concerns seriously.
"He has Superfund experience. We want to see what we can do to work together with him," he said.
EPA first proposed Superfund listing in December 2001, but subsequently entered an agreement with the state and other affected parties aimed at cleaning up the site with the state in charge.
"Everybody I know at EPA is disappointed with the lack of progress so far," said Jim Sickles, EPA's remedial project manager.
"But we do understand the site is very large and there are many parties involved and it is technically very complicated. So we are trying to make this work out," he said.
EPA spokeswoman Laura Gentile said the federal agency has no position on a Superfund designation.
"Our focus is getting the job done and doing it right. It doesn't matter who is in the lead," she said.
The leader of an environmental watchdog group pushing for Superfund status said Reid's formal backing "is incredibly significant."
"Here's the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate - a very pro-mining senator, someone who does not always see eye to eye with us on mining issues - saying it is time," said Tom Myers, a hydrologist and executive director of the Great Basin Mine Watch in Reno.
Dan Ferriter, Arco's environmental manager in charge of the site, said Arco opposes Superfund listing partly because of the negative impact on local property values.
"I think it's a little bit unfair to the state. I think they are trying to do a good job. The problem is getting a consensus with so many parties involved," Ferriter said Thursday night.