Lahontan will try to clean up Leviathan Mine
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board is installing a new cleanup system at a highly polluted, inactive sulfur mine near Markleeville in an effort to accomplish what other officials have failed to do in the past two years.
Harold Singer, executive director of Lahontan, said water officials with the help of University of California, Davis, researchers have long studied the Leviathan Mine and are optimistic about the plan.
“This is not something we just pulled out of a textbook and tried to build this big piece of equipment,” Singer said. “We think we’ve got a pretty good chance of success.”
Acid mine drainage – water containing dissolved toxic metals such as copper, arsenic, aluminum and nickel – contaminates the site.
Five evaporation ponds hold the polluted water. However, a major problem at the site, which may soon be listed as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, is that the ponds overflow, discharging the contaminated water into the nearby Leviathan Creek.
Lahontan is planning to pump the contaminated water out of the ponds, treat it and discharge the newly cleaned water outside of the ponds. The drawn-down ponds then would not overflow as more polluted water gets discharged into them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and ARCO, a previous owner of the mine, made similar attempts the last two years but were unsuccessful.
The cost of this year’s work will exceed $1 million, Singer said.
Lahontan officials recently have been installing the system, and testing likely will happen this week.
“I think California is trying to solve the problems out there. The legislature and the administration have authorized money to fix the problem. We’ve got a five-year outline we’re in the second year of,” Singer said. “There’s some other problems out there (other than the overflowing ponds). We realize what they are, and we have some plans to solve those problems.”
The Leviathan Mine, located 25 miles south of Gardnerville and five miles east of Markleeville, was first mined in 1863. Comstock workers mined it for copper sulfate to process silver in Virginia City. The mine later became a dedicated copper mine and it was used that way until 1869.
In the 1980s when Lahontan first started cleaning up the site, contaminated water flowed into Leviathan Creek and, from there, into Bryant Creek and the East Fork of the Carson River.
Singer said the state agency’s efforts then cleaned up much of the problem and contaminants now shouldn’t be in the Carson River.
“I don’t think the state’s efforts have been a failure,” he said. “I think we’ve made some very significant progress, not to say more doesn’t need to be done. But we’ve probably solved 60 to 70 percent of the problem in the mid-’80s.”
“I don’t think we will ever be able to just walk away from it, like most historical mining sites,”he added. “I think it will always require some effort.”
Earlier this year, EPA Regional Administrator Felicia Marcus notified Nevada, California and the Washoe Tribe of her plans to list the mine with Superfund status. California, to better learn what the listing would do for the site, last month asked EPA to delay its decision until October.
The Washoe Tribe, which owns land on which the potentially polluted creeks run through, supports the Superfund idea.
“The health risks and resource damage caused by past and present hazardous releases are unacceptable, and the Washoe Tribe strongly supports the listing of the site on the (Superfund National Priorities List) as a way to finally ensure that proper resources are devoted to the remediation and restoration of the site,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe.
Douglas County commissioners today are scheduled to discuss whether to support EPA’s proposal. They discussed the situation Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who said he wanted to “jump over some layers of bureaucracy” by getting the director of EPA Carol Browner to visit the mine.
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