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For more than a decade, Atlantic Richfield Company has been delivering bottled water to roughly 100 homes in a remote Native American reservation in western Nevada.
The Yerington Paiute Tribal land is located next to a large site of contaminated groundwater that resulted from an abandoned copper mine. Atlantic Richfield now owns that mine.
A complicated back-and-forth between the Environmental Protection Agency, Atlantic Richfield and the state of Nevada has resulted in a slow cleanup process.
Last year, the Tribe filed a lawsuit in tribal court claiming Atlantic Richfield had covered up the extent of the contamination.
Nevada and Atlantic recently signed a deal that would prevent the Anaconda Copper Mine from being listed as a priority Superfund site.
Then, the home deliveries of bottled water stopped.
Officials with Atlantic have said they can no longer deliver the water because of access restrictions to tribal land. The company wants the tribe to sign a deal for access to their land.
Officials with the tribe have said the move was retaliatory for their efforts to secure clean water for the tribe.
Laurie Thom, chairman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, told KNPR's State of Nevada that the mining company hasn't even talked to tribal leaders directly.
“They have not talked to us or given any reason why," she said, "It was an email to the water delivery system or program.”
The water delivery company is continuing to bring water to people on the reservation who need it but they must do it off reservation land and on their own time.
“We’re going to do whatever we can as a tribe to take care of our people. It is very sad that it has come to this point that Goliath can basically keep water from our people,” Thom said.
Dietrick McGinnis is an environmental consultant who has worked on this case for a long time.
“The new access agreement they want the tribe to sign is actually a waiver of tribal sovereignty that no tribe can sign," he said, "It’s not compatible with the way the tribes are set up or their agreement with the federal government”
He said it is just a tactic of Atlantic Richfield's parent company BP.
McGinnis said much of this is related to the decision by the state, the EPA and BP to turn the cleanup of the site over to the state.
“It is not completely clear why this site was put into what we call deferral -- that’s where it goes from federal control to state control,” he said, but it was.
The federal government can compel a company to honor an agreement with a tribe because tribes have agreements with the federal government. The state cannot compel BP to cooperate with tribal leaders.
In addition, McGinnis said BP has all the access to tribal land that it needs. Studies about how big the contamination is and how to clean it up are out there.
“The data is in know. It’s time to act. It’s time to clean it up,” he said.
The tribe is also suing BP in tribal court accusing it of offering non-native neighbors access to medical monitoring and clean water but not them.
“Our concerns were not addressed even though they were addressing the concerns of our neighbors, our non-native neighbors,” Thom said.
She said she wants BP and Atlantic Richfield to come to the table and discuss an agreement.
“In reality, it seems that BP took care of the non-tribal neighbors and left the tribe out of that settlement," McGinnis said.
He said at any time BP could come to the tribe with an offer and circumvent the whole problem. Instead, he said they're playing legal games and using the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection to do it.
Representatives from Atlantic Richfield declined to be interviewed, but sent the following statement:
The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARC) is cooperating with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) to clean-up the Anaconda Copper Mine in Yerington, NV. Last month, EPA and NDEP signed an agreement whereby EPA deferred listing the site on the National Priorities List (NPL) (aka Superfund) to allow NDEP to manage the site. With the termination of EPA’s involvement, legal authority to direct the cleanup transferred to NDEP with ARC and NDEP signing an Agreed Order on Consent (AOC). NDEP immediately then directed ARC to continue the programs of ground water sampling and delivery of bottled water on properties north of the mine site, that had been included in EPA’s orders. This included YPT property located over two miles north of the mine. ARC responded to NDEP with a letter indicating its intention to comply with NDEP direction.
ARC asked the YPT to amend an existing access agreements required to allow ARC’s vendors and contractors onto tribal property to reflect these new legal authorities. The YPT refused to amend the access agreement and disputed any NDEP authority regarding these programs. Without an agreement to allow access on YPT property, ARC has offered to make bottled water available to the YPT for pick-up, at an alternative location off site. Since the YPT’s rejection of the amended access agreement, bottled water has been delivered to the YPT off tribal property and the YPT has been distributing the bottled water on tribal property.
ARC remains committed to complying with NDEP’s directive and hopes to resolve the matter of legal authority and access as soon as possible. ARC has been working with NDEP and NDEP has agreed to potential modifications of the AOC in an effort to resolve YPT’s concerns about tribal sovereignty and NDEP authority on tribal property.
ARC is disappointed with the characterization of this sequence of events as retaliatory. ARC has been diligently trying to carry out NDEP’s order to deliver water and to find a way to do that with the necessary legal authorization to enter the YPT’s property. The decision to defer listing was made by EPA at the request of the Nevada Governor Sandoval. NDEP and ARC held a series of public meetings and specifically met with and consulted the leadership of the YPT. All parties involved respect the YPT’s views and the EPA and NDEP are engaged efforts to negotiate a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to provide for the YPT’s participation in oversight of the cleanup.
Laurie Thom, chairman, Yerington Paiute Tribe; Dietrick McGinnis, environmental consultant, McGinnis & Associates
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