Leviathan cleanup getting organized | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Leviathan cleanup getting organized

Andy Bourelle

Designating the Leviathan Mine on the Superfund National Priorities List would create more focus in cleaning up what can be described as a large yellow and orange scar in the midst of green Alpine County mountains, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA plans to recommend the area for Superfund status next month.

“All of the efforts need to be pulled together in a more focused fashion,” said Kevin Mayer, Superfund project manager for EPA. “EPA would step into a coordinating role and an enforcement role, certainly as far as ARCO is concerned and to some extent as far as the state is concerned.

“At this point, I don’t believe there’s been any significant change in our resolve to propose the site for the National Priorities List – also called the Superfund – in the September group of proposals,” Mayer added. “My understanding is in the vast, vast majority of the cases, the sites are formally listed as Superfund sites within several months after the proposal.”

The Leviathan Mine, located 25 miles south of Gardnerville, is an inactive sulfur mine now contaminated by acid mine drainage – acidic water containing dissolved toxic metals such as copper, arsenic, aluminum and nickel.

Leviathan 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.

Those activities did not harm the area’s water quality, Mayer said. However, a mining business called Anaconda, Co. purchased it in the 1950s and used it as a sulfur mine.

Runoff going through the 7,000-foot-elevation mine now mixes with sulfur and becomes acidic, dissolving toxic metals in the water. The result is yellow- and orange-colored water that fills the nearby Leviathan Creek.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board first started cleaning the site in the 1980s. At that time, contaminated water flowed into Leviathan Creek and, from there, into Bryant Creek and the East Fork of the Carson River. Lahontan officials believe much of their cleanup efforts were a success in the ’80s, and contaminants now shouldn’t be in the Carson River.

Still, much more work needs to be done, Lahontan admits.

Leviathan Creek is still an unnatural color, Mayer said. Fish cannot live either there or in Bryant Creek.

Five evaporation ponds hold polluted water, but a major problem at the site is the ponds overflow with spring runoff, discharging the contaminated water.

Lahontan is spending $1 million this summer on a new cleanup system that should address the problem. And the agency is in the second of its five-year cleanup plan for the mine.

However, Mayer said EPA would take more of a long-term approach to the site.

“What we’ll try to do is take an objective scrutiny of the site and the risks the site possesses, try to uncover what the nature of the problem is,” he said. “The nature of the problem isn’t that it’s ugly to look at. Yeah, we care what it looks like. But we care more about what human health and ecological risks it possesses. We want to come up with the long-term solution.”

Superfund status doesn’t necessarily mean more money will be available for cleanup.

“EPA does have funds that it can use, and does use, to get things rolling. Ultimately those funds are recovered or sought to be recovered,” Mayer said. “If there is no responsible party, we would use the funds exclusively. In this case, there’s a liable party, and there may be other responsible parties. The state owns the land, and in a technical sense may have other responsibilities as a landowner.”

EPA earlier this summer notified officials from California, Nevada and the Washoe Tribe of its intentions to put Leviathan on the list and is currently taking public comments on the possibility. The Washoe Tribe, which owns land near the site, already endorsed the idea, and Douglas County has discussed it and may make a formal recommendation at an upcoming meeting.

“The problems associated with the hazardous releases from Leviathan Mine have been underestimated, and attempts to address the releases have failed,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe. “We believe that the listing of Leviathan Mine on the NPL is necessary to ensure that this environmental crisis is properly addressed.”

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