The Paiute Mining Disaster

The Yerington Anaconda Mine in northern Nevada was one of the world’s largest producers of copper from 1953 to 2000. Today, nearby residents complain the defunct site is a major polluter. The Yerington Paiute Tribe’s (YPT) Campbell Ranch Reservation is barely three miles north, downwind from the 3,500-acre mining property and squarely in the path of any contaminants that might leave the mine.

Several owners and tenants operated the mine over the years, including the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), which purchased Anaconda’s interest in 1977 (and was itself later swallowed up by British Petroleum). When the bankrupt operator, Arimetco, walked away from the project in 2000, it left everything as it was, including millions of gallons of waste solutions in evaporation ponds and processing chemicals in miles of pipelines and storage drums. The tribe met firm resistance from authorities when it asked for the site to be included on the National Priorities List (NPL) for Superfund status. City and county leaders pointed out fears of decreased property values and stigma.

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn said in 2001, "While we can all agree that there is localized contamination at the site, we fail to see any scientific evidence that tribal resources are threatened, or have been adversely impacted." With the requested Superfund status circumvented, Governor Guinn put the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) in charge of site remediation.

After two years, the first barrels of chemicals were removed from the site. It was another year before the first work plan was approved for the processing area, but basic site evaluations are still underway.

The YPT had long suspected uranium was on the mine site and that it may have polluted a nearby river and local irrigation ditches. Both ARCO and NDEP discounted the possibility until the summer of 2003, when documents were located that described Anaconda’s processing of yellowcake on the site in 1976. Eventually, tests of about 30 wells to the north of the mine site revealed that nine had "elevated levels" of uranium above drinking water standards. A U.S. Geological Survey test of the site in 1978 established high levels of many heavy metals (including uranium and thorium) in evaporation and tailing ponds, but it did not test groundwater.

NDEP, ARCO and local officials said there was no evidence that high levels of uranium in off-site wells came from the mine. "Their position is totally against what we know," says YPT Chairman Wayne Garcia. "There were high levels of uranium in the ponds found on the site in the 1978 survey. High levels of other heavy metals in those ponds were confirmed to be in the groundwater below the site. Did somehow the uranium stay behind?"

High winds have also been blowing over the site and toward the reservation for decades. Undefined red dust has found its way into attics of reservation homes, many of which were built on top of fill dirt and tailings from the mine.

Governor Guinn has reportedly agreed to reconsider his position, but he remains insistent that "things have been accomplished" and that NDEP can do the job. But a fractious meeting of all interested parties last August revealed considerable unhappiness with NDEP’s stewardship.

BP of America has thus far been silent, but its subsidiary ARCO publicly demanded last year that the federal Bureau of Land Management, which has coordinated hazardous waste cleanup with the state, end its involvement in the dispute. "That action in and of itself speaks volumes about BP’s and ARCO’s intentions regarding this site," says Garcia.