Alpine County may pull support for Superfund
Alpine County leaders may rescind their support for putting the polluted Leviathan Mine on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund List.
Alpine County resident David Griffith, a geologist, has been spearheading an effort to get the Alpine County Board of Supervisors to switch its stance on the abandoned sulfur mine, which spews a toxic soup of dissolved metals into nearby Leviathan Creek.
“I don’t think they should go so far as to say it should never be a Superfund site,” Griffith said. “But I think they should say, ‘We don’t feel comfortable recommending it for Superfund at this time.'”
Superfund status could bring resources and money for the cleanup.
The board of supervisors is scheduled to discuss the issue April 4.
EPA last year proposed to list the mine as a federal Superfund site. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, Alpine County, Douglas County and the Carson City-based Carson Water Subconservancy District, all of which are concerned about the quality of water in the Carson River, have supported the listing with written comments submitted to EPA.
Kevin Mayer, Superfund project manager for EPA, said the listing likely will become official in May at the earliest.
He will be at the Alpine County meeting to discuss Griffith’s concerns with the board. And Mayer said he did not know if the board’s changing its mind would make a difference.
“If they feel adamantly the site shouldn’t be listed, I can only promise that I will report that immediately to the decision makers,” Mayer said. “I don’t know what impact it will have on the decision.”
Superfund listing is supposed to bring a more organized, long-term approach to cleaning up the mine. It would give EPA the authority to hold ARCO and possibly the state of California financially liable for the work. ARCO now owns Anaconda Co., a mining operation that once owned Leviathan Mine and is responsible for creating the open pit mine which caused the problems; California’s Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board now owns the property and has been working to clean it up since the 1980s.
One of the reasons Griffith said he is against the listing is because ARCO could fight the allegations that it should pay for the cleanup, thus delaying work.
Mayer said the EPA has funds to continue work if that happens. However, he believes ARCO will cooperate.
“They built the mine; they got the profit,” he said. “They operated the mine and decided to put the waste where it was. Federal law requires us to make them a liable party.”
Griffith said the state of Nevada, which historically benefited financially from what was taken out of the California mine, should pay for at least a portion of the millions of dollars likely needed for cleanup.
“Legally it’s probably not doable,” Griffith said. “But they’ve gotten all the benefits; California is paying all the bills.”
Griffith also said he doesn’t believe the problems there, many of which have been taken care of by Lahontan, warrant Superfund listing, which would mark the site as one of the most polluted places in the country.
“In essence, based on what I’ve been able to find, there doesn’t appear to be any scientific justification that the Leviathan Mine is causing enough damage to be listed as a Superfund site,” Griffith said.
EPA’s Mayer, who has long supported getting the community involved in plans for Leviathan, said he encourages discussions such as this one.
“I think it really warrants discussing,” Mayer said. “I hope it bodes well for the dialogue we intend to have with the community.”
Herman Zellmer, chairman of the Alpine County Board of Supervisors, said he hasn’t made up his mind whether to switch the county’s stance.
“I can’t speak for the other members of the board. I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Zellmer said. “Until I hear what the pros and cons are, I’m not going to make a decision myself.”
The Leviathan Mine was first worked in 1863. However, early mining activities did little to hurt the water quality of the region.
Anaconda Co. purchased it in the 1950s and used it as a sulfur mine. The company excavated hundreds of acres of land, creating an open pit mine, a type known for causing water quality problems.
Water runoff going through the mining site mixes with sulfur, which makes the water acidic. The acidic water then dissolves toxic metals in the ground. The new solution, called acid mine drainage, runs into Leviathan Creek.
After Anaconda sold the site in 1963, Leviathan Creek flowed directly through the disturbed area. Acid mine drainage flowed into the creek, and the water in the creek itself became acid mine drainage.
Lahontan bought the mine in the 1980s, and officials estimate the agency has taken care of 70 percent of the problem.
Leviathan Creek was channeled with concrete where it runs directly through the site, keeping toxic water from mixing with it. Concrete trenches were built through the area to catch clean water, keep it from being contaminated, and release it into the stream. Five evaporation ponds collect most of the acid mine drainage runoff.
Lahontan previously held ARCO responsible, too. However, ARCO long ago paid the state millions of dollars, and Lahontan no longer holds the company liable.
With Superfund listing, the agreement between Lahontan and ARCO would not change EPA’s ability to hold ARCO liable.
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