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Did The State Take Direction From A Company's Own Pollution Report?

(AP Photo/Debra Reid, File)

In this Nov. 30, 2004 file photo, an evaporation pond holds contaminated fluid and sediment at the former Anaconda copper mine near Yerington, Nev.

In 2018, the EPA handed oversight of the Anaconda mine cleanup project in Yerington to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. 

It was assumed that the state might know the best -- and quickest -- way to handle the plume of pollution, which began in the 1950s and worked its way into the area’s groundwater. 

But according to a  Nevada Independent story, the state not only revised the EPA’s findings from 2016, it did so after private meetings with the mine’s former owner, Atlantic Richfield Company. 

Four months later, the result was a final report that found less fault with ARCO. 

Daniel Rothberg is the environmental reporter for the Nevada Independent.

“The thrust of my story really is that under the EPA oversight, there was this conservative model that showed a plume that was a significant size of mine-related contaminated water and that plume has now been sort of shrunk as this process has moved along and as the state took responsibility of the oversight,” Rothberg explained to KNPR’s State of Nevada.

He also noted the report wasn’t just revised when the state took over, but it was “significantly” revised.

In addition, Rothberg’s reporting brings up questions about how those revisions were made. In the emails obtained by the Nevada Independent, NDEP staff talk about meetings they had with company representatives. Some of those meetings were informal.   

Rothberg reached out to NDEP about its policies regarding conversations with companies but did not get much of a response.

“I asked for documentation in some cases and the state said that some of these agreements were verbal, that they weren’t written down, and I think that raises additional questions and I’ll be doing more reporting around that,” he said.

While it is not known exactly what state environmental officials discussed with the company in those meetings, Bret Birdsong, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, told KNPR’s State of Nevada that it is a common practice for regulators to talk with companies on these types of issues.

“It is a collaborative process and quite common for there to be deep engagement between the regulator and the company that is paying for it on the scientific level as well as the financial level,” he said,

While it is common, Birdsong said the communication between the companies trying to clean up an environmental mess and the regulators overseeing it really depends on the independence of the environmental officials.

“The [officials] might receive scientific information and studies from a company, but their job in protecting the public interest is to ensure that that science is good,” he said. “The system relies on their expertise and their scientific judgment and their willingness to uphold the public interest in order to come to the right result.”

Rothberg said NDEP did push back on ARCO and required it to include another model of the contamination plume.

NDEP’s Environmental Protection Administrator Greg Lovato wasn’t able to join KNPR’s State of Nevada for the discussion.

A spokesperson sent KNPR News an open letter, dated this week, that was also sent to local government officials.

In that letter, Lovato responded to Rothberg’s story and explains NDEP’s reasons for the revisions in its final remediation report.  

The three-page letter says the original EPA report did not differentiate between each source of contamination.

He says those sources are the mine, plus natural processes and agricultural practices. NDEP also said analysis based on new information about aquifer hydraulics didn’t support the amount of mine-originated contamination that the EPA wrote years before.

Ronald Cohen is an emeritus associate professor at Colorado School of Mines. He said it can be extremely difficult and expensive to find out precisely which one of those processes is responsible for groundwater contamination.

“If you did a remarkable extensive groundwater and groundwater flow analysis with a very, very extensive sampling and geochemical analysis, you might be able to get some hint or suggestion of which source is a major source and which isn’t,” he said.

He said he hasn’t seen a case where anyone has spent the time and money to do that detailed of an analysis of contamination from a mine.

And when it comes to actually cleaning up a mine site, Cohen said most companies spend time and money fighting the clean-up in court.

“I can only think of a couple of sites where the amount of money necessary has been spent, but some of those sites are where the companies have absconded and the government has taken over clean up,” he said.

As for the Anaconda mine site, Professor Birdsong said the actual cost of clean-up has not been decided because the remedy for the contamination has not been decided.

“They’re going to decide what clean up they’re going to implement and that cleanup decision will include how clean are we going to make it,” he said. “And all of those factors will play out and will determine, ultimately, the extent to which ARCO is financially on the hook to pay for it,”

While the question of clean-up cost is still pending, the question that remains for Rothberg is: why did the state feel the need to contest the EPA’s report in the first place?

“Why reopen this process that seemingly had come to some kind of conclusion?” he asked.

He wants to know where NDEP got the sense that the EPA model on the contamination plume could be contested.

Daniel Rothberg, reporter, The Nevada Independent; Bret Birdsong, professor, UNLV Boyd School of Law; Ronald Cohen, associate professor, Colorado School of Mines.

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.