Waking up in Reno

Issues that you probably don’t think about often enough

It will cost tens or even hundreds of millions to clean up environmental damage done at the Anaconda mine in Yerington.

It will cost tens or even hundreds of millions to clean up environmental damage done at the Anaconda mine in Yerington.

Photo By David Robert

Stories don’t have to be “censored” to escape the attention of the average hard-working northern Nevadan. Sometimes important matters don’t get the kind of media attention they need to engender some real discussion. It takes quite a lot to wake us up. It takes even more to get us to act on such things as dwindling water resources, a medical insurance crisis, rising power bills, land use issues and the rights of the average Nevadan worker, a category that includes all our adult readers barring the guys sleeping on beds of newspapers between a shed and a fence in the RN&R parking lot.

What follows is a list of about half a dozen issues that you could be thinking more about. Do we have an agenda here at the RN&R? You bet, and it’s hardly a secret. We’d like to see slower, sustainable growth, workable health care, affordable utilities, land not hopelessly trashed by mining companies, safer working environments and more chances for homeless folks to get back on their feet.

Water

At a trailer park near Stead, I once saw first hand what happens when a well goes dry. First, the flow of water slowed to a dirty trickle. Then homeowners turned on the faucet and … nothing. Soon they were buying five-gallon jugs of water at the grocery store and reminding the kids not to flush.

Domestic wells are now drying up in the southern parts of the Truckee Meadows. You’ve seen some stories on this here and there. Still, California media outlets continue to pump up development in Nevada. A San Francisco Chronicle article last month headlined “Desert Digs—Bargain in the Sun” raves that “Nevada high-end homes cost a third of Bay Area prices.”

And still, local authorities allow developers to build more houses and businesses and roads. A regional plan to guide the official decision-making process is continually a subject for debate. Elected officials from the city and county refuse to find common ground on what neighborhoods belong in whose “sphere of influence.”

And the building frenzy continues.

Health

Let me guess. Your insurance company’s making some changes. Your deductibles are going up. You’re paying more for prescriptions. Insurance is covering less of everything. Doctors are more demanding about performing services that aren’t covered. You have a toothache and can’t afford to go to the dentist.

It’s looking like things are going to get worse before they get better. If they get better.

Power

Your power bill’s gone up, but hey, at least the Public Utilities Commission denied yet another Sierra Pacific rate hike. Hooray for government oversight of utilities. Nevada had a close shave with deregulation during the last legislative session. Lawmakers woke up before it was too late, stopping the sale of power plants to such juicemongers as Enron and not allowing Nevadans to experience California-style smacks from the free market’s invisible gold-gilt hand. State legislators did, however, allow large power consumers like casinos and mines to leave the grid and shop around to meet electricity needs. It’s kind of soon to say that it isn’t going to work, that some kind of public utilities plan would be the best for us all. But it’d be good to keep an eye on this, find out where your chosen candidate for state office stands and vote accordingly.

Cleaning up the big stinkin’ messes

What happens when a mining company comes to town, yanks precious metals from the mountains, then promptly goes bankrupt? Well, if the mining company hasn’t put some money up front to pay for an emergency cleanup, the taxpayers of Nevada could be stuck with a tab in the millions. For example, it’s expected to cost $60 million to $250 million to clean up a defunct mine near Yerington, reports Tom Myers at Great Basin Mine Watch. The perps who did the damage are long gone.

There are about 70 mines operating in Nevada, and the state isn’t requiring the companies operating the mines—such as Newmont and Barrick—to put up bonds or sureties that would guarantee money for later environmental cleanup. Instead, the state of Nevada accepts something called “corporate guarantees,” and that has observers like Myers worried.

“The state is taking on $237 million worth of liability with no collateral,” he says. “The companies say, ‘We’re good for cleaning up the site,’ and the state says, ‘You’re good enough. We don’t need collateral.’ “

Nationally, corporate guarantees aren’t accepted by such agencies as the Bureau of Land Management. To complicate matters, though, some companies, like Newmont, have a hard time finding a company to insure them against an après-bankruptcy large-scale environmental cleanup.

“Nobody will do Newmont,” Myers says. “Three out of four companies have dropped Newmont. … If the free market won’t provide a surety, why should the state government?”

Workplace safety

What happens when a worker gets injured and can no longer be her family’s breadwinner? That’s what Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers Rights in northern Nevada would like to know.

“That’s a huge story that’s been a frustration to me forever,” Stoneburner says. He’s concerned about such things as carpal tunnel syndrome and other muscle and skeletal problems.

But much worse are those major injuries and life-threatening incidents like those that have ended the lives of workers at Sierra Chemical, east of Sparks, where four Hispanic workers were killed and seven injured in an explosion, and AeroTech in Las Vegas. At AeroTech, one worker was killed in a fire that broke out in the plant. The company had let its hazardous-materials permit lapse. And, despite questions that rose in one inspection about the way hazardous materials were being handled at AeroTech, the company did not receive a follow-up inspection by the Clark County Fire Department.

Stoneburner doesn’t see these as anomalies, but rather as examples of what happens when there’s no entity to hold businesses accountable.

“Eighteen [U.S.] workers a day are killed in violent workplace accidents,” he says. “Those stories are blown away by some stupid, off-the-cuff remarks by our president.”

Stoneburner cites a study that showed that, out of 6.9 working establishments across the nation, about 5.5 million are exempt from the kinds of oversight that would hold employers accountable for workplace safety.

“Americans would never accept what’s happening in our workplace if it were in another context,” Stoneburner says. “And maybe we wouldn’t accept it if we knew about it.”

Down on your luck

Just where are we at with discussion of a homeless shelter in Reno, a center where services for the homeless can be coordinated? Anecdotal evidence in the RN&R’s neighborhood suggests to us that the problem is worsening as the gap between workers’ hourly pay and the cost of living in Reno widens. Finding a solution to the problem of the homeless has been listed as a Reno City Council "priority" for years. Talk is cheap. Action is imperative.