Nevada Moves To Take Lead On Anaconda Mine Cleanup

Aug 21, 2017

The Anaconda Copper Mine near Yerington, which has been out of operation since the late 1990s, may soon have a new cleanup strategy.

The state of Nevada is hoping to take the lead on restoring the site, and has formally requested that the EPA hold off on adding it to its national priority list.

Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Billman sat down with our environmental reporter, Noah Glick to break down what that means.

Before we jump in, can you give a quick sense of background on where we are with the mine cleanup?

Sure, there’s essentially two concerns: one has to do with contaminated groundwater from the original mining operations that began in the 1950s, and the other has to do with more recent operations. It was through a process called leaching. So basically, sulfuric acid and other chemicals were used on the site to strip copper from the Earth, and now there’s some leftover toxic fluid sitting in these manmade ponds.

That fluid needs to be managed and these ponds are filling up quickly, so those need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

What’s the current plan to get this cleaned up?

The liability for the groundwater portion of the cleanup is on Atlantic Richfield Company, more commonly known as ARCO. They took over the entire site in the 1970's, and with it, they also took over the liability for that original mining operation.

The other part, the leaching, that was done by a company called Arimetco. That company bought a portion of the mine site in the 90's but then later went bankrupt, so there’s really no way to get them to pay for that now.

Governor Brian Sandoval last March made a request to the EPA to have the Anaconda Copper Mine site added to the agency’s National Priority List. That move could open up additional federal dollars through the agency’s Superfund program to take care of that portion of the site. It would also put the EPA as the lead agency that would then manage the cleanup.

So it seems like the state is backtracking. Is that right? It sounds like we’re looking to have the site taken off this list.

Essentially, but it’s not quite that simple. There’s a lot of uncertainty around being on the National Priority List.

Greg Lovato is the administrator for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

“Listing the site on the National Priorities List makes the site eligible for federal funding, but it doesn’t guarantee federal funding," says Lovato, "so there is some amount of uncertainty as you look at the federal budgets and also competing with sites across the rest of the nation for funding.”

There are more than 1,300 sites nationwide listed on the National Priorities List, so there is a lot of competition for funds. And then add to that the proposed budget from the Trump administration has actually cut the Superfund program by 25 percent, so we really don’t know how much money is going to be there and if or when this site would actually receive any of that money.

Is the state then on the hook for funding this cleanup?

Because Arimetco went bankrupt, it was up to the state to find a way to fund the cleanup for these leaching ponds, the 'orphan share' it’s called. Last year, it seemed like the federal government would be the best option, but that’s changed now.

John Hadder is the director for Great Basin Resource Watch, a watchdog group that monitors extraction activity.

“Now what Atlantic Richfield is saying is, ‘OK, we’ll agree to clean up the Arimetco portion if it goes to state control.’”

Atlantic Richfield is now offering to pay the federal cost-share of the site. In return, they want the state to be the lead. The state is good with it, because the funding is more certain than the federal government, and Atlantic Richfield is good with it because it believes it can clean up the site more efficiently and with less money by working with the state, rather than having the overarching view of the EPA over them.

Hadder does have some concerns with this agreement, though, particularly when it comes to the groundwater cleanup. Greg Lovato, with the state, told me that they are working on both a short and long-term plan for that, and that the state will follow all of the same environmental standards as the EPA.

So what’s next? What are the next steps?

Right now, the EPA is reviewing this deferment request. They should have a decision on whether to accept that or not in the next month or so. If they decide to not accept the deferment, the site then goes on the National Priority List and the EPA takes the lead.

On the cleanup side, the leaching ponds need soil caps to stop rainwater from getting into the ponds, so it’s really a matter of who’s funding, who’s building it.

On the groundwater portion, the first step is finding and cutting off the source of contamination. That’s all in the works currently, and then long-term plans will come next, once they know the extent of the issue.