Cleanup at the polluted Anaconda Copper Mine outside Yerington is ramping up two years after it started, and state officials are relieved at the progress.
Several years ago, it looked as though the site was headed toward the federal Superfund list, a woefully and perpetually underfunded compilation of highly polluted national sites.
“It’s a major milestone,” said Samantha Thompson, Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources public information officer, of the work at Anaconda.
Anaconda is a defunct, 3,500-acre copper mine that produced about 400 acres of waste rock, 900 acres of contaminated tailings and 300 acres of disposal ponds between 1952 and 1978. Atlantic Richfield Company purchased the operation in 1977 and ceased mining a year later.
In 1982, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection alleged that Atlantic Richfield (ARC) was discharging pollutants into area groundwater.
The mine reopened from 1989 to 2000, but in 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked that the mine be placed on the national priority list for cleanup. The request was rejected by the state of Nevada.
Plans for cleanup of the mine bounced back and forth over the years, and in 2016, the site was again proposed for the EPA’s federal Superfund list where it would join roughly 1,200 other highly polluted sites nationwide waiting for funding.
The designation would have been Nevada – and Lyon County’s – second Superfund designation. The Carson River Mercury Site was listed in 1990.
The listing of the site on the national priorities list would not have guaranteed timely funding, Nevada Department of Environmental Protection Administrator Greg Lovato told the state legislature earlier this year.
“The federal government continues to underfund construction in the Superfund program nationwide,” he said. “This has been a chronic problem in the Superfund program since 1995.”
Avoiding stigma or expediting cleanup?
In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act to address abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps across the nation. The act also created a trust fund, or Superfund, to finance emergency responses and cleanups.
The Superfund Trust Fund was authorized in 1980 at $1.6 billion. In 1986, an additional $8.6 billion was authorized, and in 1990, an additional $5.1 billion was authorized.
The trust fund also received money from taxes on products such as petroleum and chemical feedstock, but according to the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, Congress allowed the taxes to lapse in 1995. By 2003, the fund was completely out of money.
Now, each December, the EPA quietly rolls out a list of new Superfund sites that will potentially languish as they wait for funding, Lovato said.
“It’s kind of a routine,” he said.
In 2019, the EPA reported it was unable to fund new construction at 34 sites that would have otherwise been ready for work.
“That’s why Nevada was so interested in finding a solution,” Lovato said. “It’s really about Nevada wanting to find a way to make it work. It wasn’t, ‘Nevada doesn’t want the stigma, Nevada is pro-mining.’ It was really about how it was able to get it done.”
In 2018, the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection and Atlantic Richfield Company reached a deferral agreement that ARC would fund the cleanup, with NDEP covering the “orphan share” of the property – land that does not have a party that can be held responsible for its pollution.
Prior to ARC’s purchase of the operating in the 1970s, Anaconda was operated by Arimetco. The company went bankrupt and walked away from the site. Although the land was purchased by Singatse Peak Services, LLC, the company was exempt from the environmental pollution racked up by Arimetco – hence, the orphan share of the property that NDEP is on the hook to fund the cleanup of.
There are three phases to the decade-long Anaconda cleanup. For the first phase, the state is forking out roughly the same amount it would have if the mine had been designated a Superfund site – anywhere from $3 to $3.7 million. Atlantic Richfield is putting up about $50 million for the first phase. The state is not estimated to have any financial burden for the second and third phases of cleanup.
The project is midway through its first phase, which includes constructing ponds to collect runoff from heap leach pads, capping the pads and contouring them.
Heap leaching is a process used to separate precious metals from ore. Anaconda’s pads are currently lined to mitigate groundwater contamination, but they are not capped. When it rains or snows, acid in the pads runs off into lined drainage canals on the property, which then flows into the ponds. Without capping, about 11 to 12 gallons per minute of runoff flow from the pads into the ponds during winter, where the acidic water sits until it evaporates.
And the work will continue to pick up this summer.
“There’s going to be a lot more people on site and a lot more people in town,” Lovato said.
About three dozen additional workers are expected to be on site for the upcoming work, with major equipment arriving at the mine around June and work starting in July or August.
“Construction is being held up more and more as Congress isn’t issuing new revenue,” Lovato said. “That’s why Nevada was so interested in finding a solution. We just don’t have to wait in line for federal money to get work done. With this agreement with Atlantic Richfield, they are guaranteeing funding and we aren’t waiting in line with other Superfund sites.”
Amy Alonzo covers the outdoors, recreation and environment for Nevada and Lake Tahoe. Reach her at [email protected] or (775) 741-8588. Here’s how you can support ongoing coverage and local journalism.