EPA moves to declare toxic Nevada mine Superfund priority

Markets Associated Press

After decades of resistance from the state of Nevada, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the final steps to add an abandoned copper mine in Yerington to the list of the nation's most polluted Superfund sites.

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The EPA formally proposed the National Priority Listing of the World War II era-mine in the Federal Register on Thursday — 31 years after Nevada regulators first accused Anaconda Mining Co. of illegally discharging pollutants from the toxic site 80 miles southeast of Reno.

"Other cleanup options were evaluated, but are not viable at this time," the EPA said in a statement explaining its move.

The agency has pressed for priority Superfund status twice before based on tests that showed toxic levels of uranium produced during the processing of the copper in leach ponds had leaked into the groundwater, but backed off when state and local business leaders opposed the move for fear of a stigma that could affect property values.

Gov. Brian Sandoval announced in March he was reluctantly dropping the state's opposition because the NPL listing will make $31 million available to help with the cleanup.

"This public notice in the Federal Register is an anticipated next step in the process to secure federal funds to help with remediation of the Anaconda mine site," said Kay Scherer, interim director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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"We are pleased to see that the site — which remains fully under control — has been recognized and included on the list of proposed national priorities, as it demonstrates that the U.S. EPA acknowledges the site is on track to proceed with corrective action," she said Thursday.

The mine, which covers 6 square miles and is owned partly by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, also is polluted with arsenic, mercury and lead.

Atlantic Richfield acquired the property in 1977 from Anaconda Copper, which built the mine in 1941. Fueled by demand after WWII, Anaconda produced 1.7 billion pounds of copper from 1952 to 1978.

The site's most recent owner, Arimetco, abandoned it in 2000.

"We have been working to address the contamination at the Anaconda mine since 2001," said Alexis Strauss, EPA's acting regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest.

That's the first year the EPA first proposed priority Superfund status.

Although it was kept secret at the time, tests conducted in 1976 found high uranium levels in one of the mine's evaporation ponds and additional tests in 1984 found uranium in monitoring wells at up to 40 times the level the EPA adopted for drinking water.

Local activists and conservationists stepped up pressure for Superfund status in 2003 after a government contractor working with the BLM and the EPA on cleanup plans discovered documents outlining the history of the containment testing in the Anaconda archives at the University of Wyoming.

BLM's Nevada Director John Ruhs said Thursday his agency "agrees with both EPA and the state that the site warrants attention."