It's taken 40 years since the official shutdown of the former Anaconda Copper Mine near Yerington, Nev., but there will finally be shovels in the ground later this year.
The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Division of Environmental Protection said work will soon begin to clean up the contamination that resulted from the 3,400-acre mine site.
Last year, former Governor Brian Sandoval came to an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to transfer responsibility of the cleanup to the State of Nevada and Atlantic Richfield Corporation (ARCO).
Greg Lovato, an administrator with the division, says ARCO has already paid up to $100 million for environmental assessments and research at the site and will continue to pay for the work going forward.
But two tribes in the area want the responsibility of the cleanup to go back to the feds. They think the EPA would have more clout to hold ARCO's feet to the fire.
Lovato says, however, the state has an enforceable agreement with ARCO, and they've already been holding up their end of the bargain.
“There is no question that Atlantic Richfield has taken responsibility for what’s happening at this site," he said, "I think often times when you have a situation where a company is not taking responsibility or its questionable whether they have responsibility that’s a case where… it might be advantageous to have additional enforcement and actions to prove liability but you don’t really have a situation here where Atlantic Richfield is saying they aren’t responsible for the second and third phases of the cleanup.”
Lovato said ARCO didn't have liability for the first phase of the project, but paid for that in addition to the next phases of the cleanup f.
Plus, Lovato said that when the EPA takes the lead on Superfund sites there is no guarantee the money will come through.
“If you look at look at all the [National Priorities List] sites across the country for those that are fund lead, for those that the federal government is taking the lead on they are underfunded,” he said.
With the agreement with ARCO, the state can force them to pay for the cleanup.
To get the EPA to sign the deferral agreement allowing the state to take over the site, the state had to show it would give proper oversight of the cleanup and that ARCO would do as good a job as the feds.
Lovato said his department is on track with those benchmarks.
One of the biggest projects going forward will be studying the plume of contaminants in the groundwater. While the planning for the second and third phases of the cleanup is going on, scientists will watch that plume.
“While all of that is going on we are monitoring and evaluating the status of the groundwater contaminate plume to determine if it is stable and whether any interim actions are needed to stabilize it,” Lovato said.
The first phase of the cleanup, which is expected to start later this year, will focus on covering the piles of mine tailings to prevent dust from coming off them and rain and snow entering them creating even more runoff.
Workers will also be creating more containment ponds for the contaminated water.
Lovato can't say exactly how much the entire project will cost, but the majority of the cost will be paid by ARCO.
As far as having an entirely 'clean' area, Lovato was cautious to say the area will be ever be completely 'contamination free.'
“I think the era will come when the contamination will no longer present an unacceptable risk of exposure,” he said.
Lovato said that in a site this large there is no way to completely remove all contamination but they can control or cap the contamination, preventing it from migrating back into the groundwater.
Greg Lovato, administrator, Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Division of Environmental Protection