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Governor May Block Yerington Superfund Site From Cleanup. But Why?

Debra Reid / AP

In this Nov. 30, 2004, file photo, an evaporation pond holds contaminated fluid and sediment at the former Anaconda copper mine near Yerington, Nev. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to add the abandoned site to its Superfund National Priority List.

The town of Yerington sits southeast of Carson City. It was founded in the late 1800s as an agricultural town. Soon after, miners realized there was copper in them thar hills, and Yerington’s second industry began.

Now, the Anaconda mine, which sits on the edge of the town of a little more than 3,000 people, is a Superfund site.

When mining finally stopped about a decade ago, the Yerington area found itself with overflowing waste water ponds, dust clouds that made people sick, and contaminated drinking water. The problem is uranium. When miners extracted copper, they brought uranium with it.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency, state environmental officials and the residents couldn’t just call one mining company to fix the problem. The mine had switched hands several times in the decades since it first opened and some of those companies were no longer around.

The EPA took over the site in 2005 and started cleaning it up. However, even though the abandoned 3,500 acre mine is a Superfund site, it sits in limbo between the federal and the state government.

In order for the federal government to spend the money to clean it up, it must put the site on its National Priorities List, but every governor since Kenny Guinn has opposed that.

Now, add to that mix farms. Peri Farms grows produce in the area, which is sold in Southern Nevada under a “buy local” marketing campaign. The local farmers do not want the site put on the priority list.

On The Ground

Peggy Pauly has intimate knowledge of the Anaconda mine and its impact.

“My yard ends and the boundary for the site begins,” she told KNPR’s State of Nevada.

Pauly is the co-founder of the Yerington Community Action Group, which has been fighting for years to get the site cleaned up.

“The people who have lived in the pathway of the site are the one’s saying, ‘yes, clean it up!’” she said.

Pauly’s property is fed with a private well that she can’t use. The plume of contaminated ground water goes under her property. She and her neighbors have been using bottled water for more than a decade. The energy conglomerate BP is currently one of the “responsible parties” for the mine site and after losing a class action suit brought by Pauly and others it must provide them clean drinking water.

“BP has actually been supplying free bottled water to anyone whose wells have a uranium level over 25,” she said. The maximum contaminated level is 30.

Dietrick McGinnis is an environmental engineer who advises the Yerington Paiute Tribe. He said the contaminated water goes deep into the aquifer, and at this point, it hasn’t been contained.

“The extent of it is still being assessed, but we are generally in agreement that we’re looking at well over a mile, if not two… of contaminated ground water,” he said,

“This water will not be drinkable in this generation. There is no real fix for that.”

Getting On The List

Gov. Sandoval was supposed to make a decision on Jan. 29 to give the state’s consent for the site to be listed on the National Priorities List.

Instead, he asked for more time. Now, the head of the EPA has asked Sandoval to make a decision by the end of March. According to McGinnis, the governor can either agree that the site needs money and attention, he can do nothing and let the EPA do what it will, or he can say ‘no’. What happens if he says 'no' is unclear.

McGinnis said that generally the EPA bows to the wishes of the state - as it did when Guinn declined to allow the site to be listed a decade ago. But now the EPA has been stung by a number of high profile cases in which people were hurt because it didn't act. The most high profile current case is the lead poisoing in Flint, Michigan.

So, if the EPA knows the 3,500 acre Yerington site is contaminated, it's already designated as a Superfund site, one of the companies responsible is buying clean water for everyone, and the people living there believe it needs to be cleaned up... why isn’t it being listed?

“People at meetings say, ’It would be a stigma to the community to have this listed on the NPL,’” Pauly explained, “We would bring up to them when they use that excuse it’s already a Superfund site.”

Pauly said some people, particularly the farmers, believe if it is listed it will hurt their business. The Peri family said they lost money and orders when the contaminated water plume was found in 2009.

Since then, the Peris have shut off wells and are using sources of water that are not from contaminated areas. The EPA has even said the produce grown in the area is not contaminated.

But McGinnis points out that without a designation they can’t know for sure. He used uranium found in onions grown in the area as an example. The onions had low levels of uranium, but onions are very good crops to grow in contaminated soil, because they don’t take up much contaminates.

“The mere fact that you find any level of uranium in an onion means that you have probably a significant amount in the environment that it’s being exposed to,” he said.

No soil samples were taken around the onions and the water used on the field is not regularly tested, he said. He went on to point out that listing the site on the NPL will help solve the monitoring problem.

“The NPL designation will help with that a lot, because in addition to the money the regulatory authority increases,” he said, “The EPA can be a little more strict with it because if the responsible party is non-compliant, if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, EPA can then use the Superfund to step in and do it.”

He said currently the EPA must negotiate everything with the other responsible parties, making sampling more difficult.

“They’re working with a significant handicap, because the site’s not listed, to get done what needs to get done,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis believes the mine site hasn’t been put on the priority list because people don’t understand the extent of the problem. He believes even people living next to the mine don’t understand.

“Folks in Flint, Michigan get put on bottled water for months and it’s a tragedy,” he said, “Peggy and her neighbors have been on it for over a decade.”

For Pauly, she believes people who aren’t in the path of contaminates don’t really see a reason to worry. She also puts the blame at the feet of state and local officials.

“We just feel like we’ve been failed by the government officials,”

she said. “I don’t think to this day they have a full understanding of the scope or the magnitude of the problem.”

Sick Or Not?

One of the reasons the extent of the problem may not be fully understood is they haven’t been able to directly link cancers or other health problems to the contamination.

Pauly has anecdotal evidence that the site is causing health problems, but she is careful not to blame the mine, because it hasn’t been proven by a scientific study.

“There are a lot of people who do believe that living by the sites’ contamination has impacted their health,” she said.

Pauly has spoken to many former mine workers and their families. They told her stories of coughing up blood, learning quickly not to leave coins in their pockets when they went to work because the money would corrode, and making sure work clothes were washed separately so dust from the mine wouldn't contaminate other clothes. 

McGinnis is also careful not to directly link a person’s health problems to the site, but he believes it there is a correlation.

“What has come from the mine and what the people have been exposed to has increased their risk,” he said,

“I believe the mine poses a health risk that has yet to be quantified. It is significant.”

EDITORS NOTE: KNPR News has reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency, the governor's office and Peri Farms. They all have refused to talk on KNPR's State of Nevada. 

We have also reached out to the Yerington city manager and the Lyon County manager. They have not returned calls or emails.

Dietrick McGinnis, an environmental engineer who advises the Yerington Paiute tribe;  Peggy Pauly, a community activist and founder of the Yerington Community Action Group

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)