Copping Out on Copper Mine Contamination

After decades of delay, financial assurance regulations will push polluters to clean up their toxic messes in a timely manner and encourage companies to avoid making messes in the first place.

the wazoo/CC BY-NC 2.0
The Anaconda Mine located near Yerington, Nev., in January 2012. After decades of delay, financial assurance regulations will push polluters to clean up their toxic messes, like this mine, in a timely manner, and it will encourage companies to avoid making messes in the first place. (the wazoo/CC BY-NC 2.0)

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In 1990, my husband and I bought two acres of land in Yerington, Nevada, drilled a domestic water well and built our dream home. It just so happened that our home was near an old abandoned copper mine known as the Anaconda Mine. The realtor who sold us the land told us that the site—which had been closed since 1978—was safe. What if we had known that only two years after we moved onto our land, active mining would begin again? What if we had known, back then, that as of March 2005, it would be listed as an EPA Region 9 Superfund site?

Here is some of what’s happened in between: In 1992, a company called Arimetco reopened the mine and began processing copper on the site, which continued for the next eight years until they went bankrupt and abandoned the property. Only after the bankruptcy was it established that the company had made numerous violations—90 million gallons of contaminated fluids were left on the site, contaminating our groundwater, along with five heap leach pads that are a form of mining waste. Residents were asked to volunteer to have their domestic wells tested for arsenic.  Many of our wells were above the maximum contaminant level—the level determined to be a “safe” level of arsenic in our water supply. We began to receive free bottled water, supplied by British Petroleum/Atlantic Richfield Company, the party responsible for most of the contaminated site (Arimetco is the responsible party for one portion of the site).

At community meetings we continued to be assured that our water was safe—that nothing dangerous was migrating off the site. We were also told the arsenic in our wells was naturally occurring and not from the mine.

However, in October 2004, we received a fact sheet from the EPA, which explained that high levels of uranium and radiation had been identified on the site. This flyer indicated that the contamination levels were potentially dangerous to the workers on the site as well as to those of us living in the vicinity. It was at this point that I formed a community action group.  

By March 2005, the EPA had taken the lead on the investigation and the cleanup. At that point, the Anaconda Mine site was listed on EPA’s Region 9 Superfund list.

In September 2009 we got more bad news. We were shown a map from the EPA proving there is an arsenic plume coming off the site that has and still is affecting our domestic wells. We were told the remedy would be to close our wells and hook up to city water.

The EPA has been using emergency funds to deal with the immediate risks posed by the Arimetco portion of the site. But there are no more funds to be accessed by the EPA unless the site is placed on the National Priority List, which would make federal taxpayer funding available for cleanup, eventually. (Because there are more sites on the list than there is public funding for cleanup, thanks in part to the fact that companies like this one duck their cleanup obligations, even if it was added to the list cleanup might take a while, but at least it would be on the list for federal funds.)

Unfortunately, our state, county and city officials have been opposed—along with our local business leaders—to listing the site because they believe there will be an economic stigma to having the site on the list, as agriculture is the main industry in Mason Valley.

We are still fighting for the site to be cleaned up. On December 22, 2015, the EPA sent a letter to Gov. Sandoval requesting the site be placed on the priority list so that the EPA can access Superfund money to do the clean up of the site that BP/ARC is not responsible for. The governor responded, reluctantly, on March 29, 2016 to allowing the site to be listed. But his letter contained many caveats, and there is still the potential that the state could withdraw their support of listing.

Our government agencies have failed our community. They have not held the protection of our water and our health as the high priority it must be. This failure has made a potential risk to human health, wildlife and our environment for years. We have found reports that prove that state regulators have known about the pollution since as early as 1984.  In the Iron Plume Study, conducted in April and September of 1984, eleven of fourteen monitoring wells on the site showed high unsafe levels of uranium and radiation.  

This serious problem continues today and our groundwater is still being impacted by continuing sources of contamination on the Anaconda Mine site.

Tragically, communities across the U.S. are hurting with this type of crisis, whereby government agencies know about serious problems but have not been able to manage a safe removal or cleanup.

This is a huge problem, but it’s also solvable. After nearly eight years of Earthjustice litigation, last January the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the federal EPA to finalize rules that will ensure that the worst industrial polluters are on the hook financially for their own toxic messes.

Though these rules will only apply to new sites, having them in place better ensures that situations like what happened in my community won’t continue to happen. Arimetco was not required to put up a large cleanup bond before they began their operation. And the state of Nevada only required a $75,000 bond, which was used up very quickly. Had there been cleanup funding available, we would not be in a situation right now that has the potential of a serious release of contaminated fluids on the site, further polluting the groundwater.

Peggy Pauly is a wife, mother and home-school teacher in Yerington, Nevada who has been working with the Great Basin Resource Watch on cleaning up the abandoned Anaconda Mine near her home.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.