EPA Looks for Hazards at Toxic Nevada Mine

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Federal regulators said Thursday they've started soil sampling and high-tech radiological surveying at a huge abandoned copper mine in northern Nevada in following up on their concerns that it poses an "imminent and substantial" threat.

The Environmental Protection Agency will use the testing results to building on previous work at the old Anaconda Co. mine near Yerington, said Jim Sickles, the EPA's Superfund remedial project manager for the Pacific Southwest region.

Part of the EPA efforts involve sampling under heap leach ponds to determine what's needed to permanently close the ponds. The EPA also is overseeing two Atlantic Richfield Co. work crews drilling monitoring wells and collecting soil samples around the former mine to assess contamination.

"What we hope to do is to let people know we're trying to move this ahead as best we can," Sickles said, adding that the cleanup process will take years to complete and the costs could exceed $50 million.

After long delays, the EPA ordered ARCO in January to take the first major steps toward cleaning up contamination at the mine.

The order, which replaced voluntary cleanup efforts, stems primarily from 2003 studies that found the soil and groundwater had been contaminated with uranium, apparently a radioactive byproduct of decades of chemical processing of copper at the mine site that covers six square miles, the agency said. The mine also is polluted with arsenic, beryllium, lead, mercury and selenium.

Cleanup plans have been the source of contentious negotiations between EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, the state of Nevada,
Atlantic Richfield, neighboring residents and tribes, as well as a BLM whistleblower who claims he was fired after he complained about an alleged cover-up of the health and safety risks at the toxic mine.

EPA officials said the January action didn't put the site on the Superfund list and the agency isn't seeking such status - although it remains an option. Sickles said the status could help in getting funding for the cleanup.

The state resisted EPA's earlier call for Superfund designation and refused to surrender regulatory role until December 2004, when it asked EPA to assume control under the same law that covers Superfund sites.

Local residents and environmentalists have tended to blame Atlantic Richfield for the slow pace of cleanup efforts at the mine, which closed for good in January 2000.

The mine, about 60 miles southeast of Reno, produced copper for about 30 years until 1978. Atlantic Richfield, as a former owner of the mine site, is responsible for the cleanup because the most recent owner, Arimetco Inc. of Tucson, Ariz., filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and abandoned the site in 2000.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)