Feds pitch for cleanup at mine site
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed to list Alpine County’s polluted Leviathan Mine as a federal Superfund site.
The proposed listing, which has been expected for months, begins a 60-day public-comment period. Actual designation as a Superfund site could happen sometime after that.
“This listing will bring federal money and resources to clean up a site that has been compromising ecosystems in California, Nevada and Washoe Tribal lands for too long,” said Keith Takata, director of EPA’s Superfund division in San Francisco.
After a tour of the site, 25 miles south of Gardnerville near the California and Nevada line, Douglas County Commissioners earlier this week joined the Washoe Tribe in support of the listing. Despite being asked to by EPA to comment, the state of California, whose regional water quality control board now owns the abandoned mine declined to do so.
The state of Nevada had indicated it wouldn’t object to the listing but didn’t specifically support the proposal either.
U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, who arranged the tour earlier this week, said Thursday the designation was necessary.
“The Leviathan Mine is an ecological nightmare that continues to contaminate the environment,” said Bryan, D-Nev. “Hopefully, with this designation we can begin a process that will clean up the abandoned mine and provide the necessary safeguards to properly protect not only the environment but the health and safety of many of Nevada’s residents.”
Acid mine drainage – acidic water containing dissolved toxic metals – has drained into nearby Leviathan Creek, discoloring the water and making it unable to support aquatic life. Leviathan Creek flows into Bryant Creek, a tributary of the East Fork of the Carson River. While California officials have stressed that no contamination reaches the river, Douglas and Washoe officials have long been concerned because the river flows through their lands. Tribal land is within 2 miles of the mine itself.
“We’re certainly encouraged the EPA is taking this position, and it’s certainly going to benefit the tribal community and the entire community in this area,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe. “We’re fortified by EPA’s decision because every day we have to deal with acid mine drainage. It’s an important step forward and it’s something we’ve been advocating for years, but by no means is the work complete.”
Water runoff going through the mining site mixes with sulfur, making it acidic. The acidic water then dissolves metals – iron, copper, aluminum, nickel and arsenic – in the ground, creating acid mine drainage.
Leviathan Mine, which can be described as a 400-acre white scar in the otherwise green Alpine County mountains, is now owned by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. The state agency has spent the past several years trying to keep the acid mine runoff out of the water supply. This summer, Lahontan officials built a $1 million system of treated contaminated pond water to create more capacity for runoff.
EPA has praised those efforts; however, the retention ponds built there do not keep some of the runoff from being contaminated and flowing into Leviathan Creek.
Kevin Mayer, Superfund project manager for EPA, said the soonest the listing could occur would be one month after the comment period ends.
“It depends, of course, on the type of comments we receive,” he said. “If they are highly detailed and technical, it will take time to respond to the comments – and really consider the comments. It’s not just to defend ourselves against critics and accept any praise. If there are issues that need to be addressed, we will do that.
“The earliest it could happen is a month (after the comment period ends), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be another three-month period, or longer.”
The Leviathan Mine, which has been closed for 37 years, was first mined in 1863 for copper sulfate to process silver in Virginia City.
Early mining activities did not harm the water quality of the region. However, a mining business called 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 of operation known for causing water quality problems.
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