Business often blocks health and safety measures
Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took responsibility for the Animas River Basin spill from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, residents have been telling reporters that local businesspeople and officials also are at fault for long rejecting a federal Superfund designation that would have led to cleanup.
One former mayor more or less confirmed that local leaders had fought for the past quarter century against a Superfund cleanup. “How many people want to go to a Superfund site for tourism or recreation?” county commissioner and former mayor Ernest Kuhlman told the Associated Press.
Flash back 46 years to Fallon, Nevada. “We are the center for tourists, duck and deer hunters and are trying to get industry in here,” said Acting Mayor Merton Domonoske in 1969.
Domonoske led an effort by local businesspeople to fire Dr. Edward Crippen, the Nevada state health officer who had just warned Fallon officials that arsenic in their water was nearly twice the level recommended by the U.S. Bureau of Public Health.
“We’re not too concerned about the water,” said Domonoske.
Gov. Paul Laxalt joined the locals and called the Nevada Board of Health into session to fire Crippen, which it did on Feb. 26, 1969. The effort to fire Crippen brought just the consequence the businesspeople had sought to avoid—the story was front page news from coast to coast.
It was left to the next generation of Fallon leaders to deal with the tainted water, though they acted only after another round of bad publicity surrounding a high incidence of leukemia in the area—12 children in three years. Causation has never been established between the leukemia cases and arsenic, or benzene and tungsten, which also occur in higher than normal amounts in Fallon. But where the Nevada health officer and the U.S. Bureau of Public Health were not able to get local officials to act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control had more impact, particularly when word of the alleged cancer “cluster” went around the world. On one occasion, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid held a meeting in Fallon on the problem, generating further publicity.P.R. over cleanup
More recently, federal officials have said the only way to clean up wastes seeping into the water table from Lyon County’s one-time Anaconda open pit copper mine is to add it to the Superfund’s national priority list (NPL), but local businesspeople and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection have resisted that step. The Yerington Paiute Tribe has requested NPL status, but city, county and state governments have opposed it, as have British Petroleum and Atlantic Richfield, which now own the corporate remnants of Anaconda.
Some local businesspeople hope for new mining at the site, and are concerned that NPL listing will send a negative message to other mining corporations.
The Anaconda site has a Superfund listing. “The quick answer is ’yes’; however, it is not on the National Priority List (NPL) of sites,” according to an Anaconda page on the Superfund website.
“The main difference between NPL sites and other Superfund sites is that we cannot spend Superfund money to conduct long-term cleanups,” it reads further. “We can use Superfund money to conduct long-term cleanups on NPL sites only.”
Environmental chemist Glenn Miller said the Superfund law is particularly useful in getting massive projects like the Lyon County project done.
“It has allowed an agency—EPA—to come in and oversee larger sites,” he said. “They’re overseeing the site in Butte, Montana, and that goes all the way down to Missoula. That site is always getting better. Every year, there’s improvement in that site.”
The Lyon County site, by contrast, has remained a problem for more than 35 years. Six governors have come and gone. Miller said the site is “incredibly difficult because of the contaminant load.”
“And I think the politics of Yerington are like the politics of the Animas River Basin in that there were people who were arguing against Superfund status at both sites,” he said. “In the case of the Animas River particularly, it resulted in catastrophically contaminated water.”
Tests in the Lyon County region have shown very high levels of uranium and other toxins in the water. A plume from the mine site is on the move. Starting in 2004, local residents have been supplied with bottled water by British Petroleum. Uranium is a waste product of copper mining and long-term exposure is associated with cancer and kidney damage.
The Yerington Paiute Tribe has vigorously opposed the state’s refusal to apply for NPL listing. In 2012, an attorney for local business Peri and Sons Farms said, “There is an effort by [the tribe] to promote a litigation strategy for the benefit of the tribe.”
In January 2011, some residents tired of following the lead of local leaders filed a class action suit against Anaconda—which was acquired by Atlantic Richfield, which in turn became part of British Petroleum. BP later reached a settlement of $19.5 million. But whether residents, like businesses, want the mine to reopen is an unsettled question.
The site covers more than 3,000 acres and contains wastes generated over six decades of operation under various corporations, the last quarter-century of its operation as an Anaconda property. The site ownership has gone through several acquisitions or mergers and owners since the 1978 shutdown of the pit as a result of falling copper prices and lower priced imported copper. Four years ago, Singatse Peak Services of Vancouver acquired the property and appears still to own it.
The state’s reluctance to apply for NPL listing for the Lyon County site may stem as much from budget issues as anything else. While the cost of Superfund cleanups are borne mostly by the federal government and corporations who did business on Superfund sites—the EPA has gathered financial pledges from various past operators of the Anaconda mine—the state would still have to provide a token few million. While no estimates have been provided recently for the cleanup, it would likely run at least into the hundreds of millions of dollars.