By Suzanne Featherston
Elko Daily Free Press
WEED HEIGHTS — The Anaconda Copper Mine averted being listed as a Superfund national priority site as state and federal government representatives signed an agreement Feb. 5 to ensure cleanup in cooperation with site owner Atlantic Richfield Co.
U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt said the plan is an example of the agency’s focus on getting results under the Trump Administration, and proponents of the deferral say the alternate plan will accelerate remediation and save taxpayers millions of dollars.
“We need to be focused on real results, getting real answers, and making sure that we are focused on that and that our processes internally get to that. That’s what this site represents at Anaconda,” Pruitt said. “This is [EPA] Region 9 headquarters, the state of Nevada [and] various stakeholders coming together to say that there is a path forward that provides certainty to the community — that gets this area cleaned up, protects the health of the environment, and we can do it in a time frame that is expeditious.”
Pruitt and Gov. Brian Sandoval met at the 100-year-old former mine to make the announcement and sign the deferral agreement. Local officials, state regulatory agency representatives and industry experts attended the event near Yerington.
Lyon County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Hastings, Commissioner Greg Hunewill, Nevada Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, Assemblywoman Robin Titus, Nevada Sen. James Settelmeyer, Yerington Mayor George Dini, Walker River Paiute Tribe chairwoman Amber Torres and Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett were among the guests in attendance.
“This is a landmark day for all of us because it is going to provide that certainty that everybody needs, but most importantly, this is going to get cleaned up,” said Sandoval. “… For the people that I know who live in this community, this is a life-changer.”
The open pit and heap leach copper mine operated intermittently between 1918 and 2000 under various owners but was plagued by environmental concerns, including alleged water pollution. After the Anaconda Copper Mine was abandoned in 2000, state and federal environmental agencies commenced activities to stabilize and regulate the site while engaging in a years-long discussion with concerned parties.
“One of the things that’s important to recognize is what this means for us as a community,” said Lyon County Manager Jeff Page. “We’re finally going to be able to have — after two decades of struggling, doing testing, research, debating, arguing — we’re finally going to be at a point in time where we can start moving forward and getting things cleaned up like we wanted to get done to begin with, and at a substantially reduced expense to the local taxpayers as well as the rest of us.”
While under the Obama Administration, the EPA proposed adding the mine — a Superfund site since 2005 — to the Superfund National Priorities List to make it eligible for federal remediation funds, according to an EPA press release. The national priority listing would have put the project under federal control and used federal funds for remediation. In the U.S., there are more than 1,300 Superfund sites, or hazardous-waste-contaminated lands identified as candidates for cleanup, according to the EPA.
Instead, Atlantic Richfield Co., the site owner and wholly owned subsidiary of BP, approached the state with a proposal for remediation through government and private cooperation. In July 2017, Nevada leaders requested the EPA defer the NPL listing of areas not on tribal lands.
“We wondered if there was another way to advance the site more effectively, without the stigma of a Superfund designation,” said Robert Genovese, president of Atlantic Richfield Co.
Since then, Sandoval, the EPA, Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, the tribes and others have worked together to complete the necessary agreements to defer listing. The effort includes Atlantic Richfield taking on the “orphan shares,” or environmental issues of previous companies that no longer exist.
"As you look around, you undoubtedly will have noticed this is a massive site. Remediation here will be an enormous undertaking,” Genovese said from a lectern set up behind the secure fencing on the 3,400-acre site, which includes heap leach pads, evaporation ponds, tailings, buildings, process areas, waste rock and a pit lake. “We are here to remediate the environmental impact of decades of mining activities so that the community can move forward.”
Genovese said the EPA’s decision to allow deferral saves taxpayers about $40 million “by not requiring federal funding to clean up environmental impacts created by other companies that are no longer in business.” He did not disclose the cost of the project.
The cleanup plan takes on a holistic approach that Genovese described as protective and efficient, to be accomplished in phases. Anticipated closure is set for 2029, according to a timeline provided at the event.
The EPA determined that Nevada meets the applicable criteria for deferral, according to the release. Under deferral, mine cleanup must meet the same level of protection as if it were a Superfund priority site. The agency plans to review remedies and progress, and retains responsibility for tribal land.
“There is monitoring that occurs,” Pruitt said. “It’s a partnership.”
The EPA administrator, a member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, said the agency’s action at Anaconda represents the president’s results-oriented leadership style.
“He wants us to use our authority, take our responsibilities to the point of getting answers for communities all over this country. When you think about it, sites like Anaconda are some of the most tangible benefits we can provide citizens across the country,” Pruitt said. “So this is really good work and this is really what the agency does well, and I know [that by] working with the state of Nevada, it will be achieved.”