Leviathan Mine could get "Superfunding"
Federal officials have yet to hear any objections to listing the highly polluted Leviathan Mine on the Superfund National Priorities List and likely will propose the listing within three weeks.
“We are moving along. However, the proposals, with the final signatures, are running a little slow this quarter,” said Kevin Mayer, Superfund project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It probably won’t happen until the second, maybe third, week of October.”
EPA has asked the state of California, whose Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board owns the abandoned mine, to comment on the proposal, raising concerns and expressing objections if there are any. The state hasn’t done that yet.
“I know the state of California wants this situation dealt with. That’s not the question,” Mayer said. “It’s just one of autonomy and inter-jurisdictional issues that’s holding up the state’s unqualified support.”
The Leviathan Mine, located 25 miles south of Gardnerville, is an inactive sulfur mine now contaminating a nearby creek with acid mine drainage – acidic water containing dissolved toxic metals such as iron, copper, aluminum, nickel and arsenic.
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.
Water runoff going through the mining site mixes with sulfur. The sulfur lowers the water’s ph level, meaning it makes the water acidic. The acidic water then dissolves toxic metals in the ground, creating acid mine drainage.
After Anaconda sold the site in 1963, Leviathan Creek flowed directly through the disturbed area. Acid mine drainage flowed into the creek.
Lahontan bought the mine in the 1980s, and state officials estimate it 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 hitting it.
Runoff of the polluted water now is diverted into five evaporation ponds. Together, they hold 13 million gallons of the toxic water. Historically, however, there have been problems in that only 2 to 3 million gallons evaporate in a year. When 6 to 8 million gallons are created each spring runoff, there has been major overflowing.
Lahontan officials this past summer built a $1 million system of treating the contaminated pond water, in order to create capacity for more runoff. The system pulls the acid mine drainage into the ponds, which has a ph of 2, takes out the acidity and toxic metals and returns the water – ph of 7, the same as distilled water – into Leviathan Creek.
The state-of-the-art system has been hailed as a success.
“Things are going really well in terms of the water treatment,” said Harold Singer, executive director of Lahontan. “We expect to have more than 5 million gallons treated this year. I won’t say it’s 100 percent, but I would say there is a very good chance there won’t be any overflow this year. It kind of depends on the weather and how much precipitation we get.”
EPA supports those cleanup efforts. However, federal officials say there are other problems and the stream will still be contaminated, a fact Lahontan agrees with.
EPA officials think the Superfund status will help create more of a long-term cleanup approach.
The state of Nevada has indicated it won’t object to the listing, Mayer said, and the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California has supported it.
Brian Wallace, chairman of the tribe, said contaminants could be making their way onto Washoe land.
“We have some very serious health issues that need to be addressed,” he said.
Officials from Douglas County are concerned because Leviathan Creek flows into Bryant Creek, a tributary of the East Fork of the Carson River. However, the Douglas County Commission has not taken a position.
“The contaminants are discharged into a stream that eventually flows into the Carson River which goes through Douglas County,” said Don Miner, county commissioner. “It’s used for irrigation for crops, and there’s the potential for contamination of groundwater. All our drinking water comes from groundwater.”
Douglas commissioners had hoped to take a tour of the mine and see Lahontan’s work before deciding whether to support the proposal. That has yet to be arranged.
Mayer said it likely would take a few months before the mine received formal listing. The interim would serve as a public-comment period, during which Douglas County’s comments would still be welcome.
After official listing, EPA then would be in a coordinating role.
“I know the regional board is willing to work with us and the tribe and the other interests,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to get the Leviathan Mine to a point where it’s not impacting the watershed in a negative fashion.”
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