Official hopes overflow is mine's last

The federal official overseeing cleanup of Leviathan Mine said he hopes the recent overflow of acid mine drainage into a tributary of the Carson River is the last at the toxic site west of Topaz Lake.

"Our hope is that this year may be the last year this happens, but we don't know for sure," said Kevin Mayer, project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This episode should bring the message to people that Leviathan Mine is not fixed," Mayer said Friday.

"The problem is still ongoing, especially during the winter when we don't have the capability to treat the acid mine drainage. It's important to get year-round treatment up there."

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board reported Thursday that a combination of acid mine drainage and rainwater stored in ponds at the mine site in Alpine County started overflowing into Leviathan Creek.

The drainage is a dilute sulfuric solution with arsenic, copper, nickel, aluminum and iron.

The California board advised people in the area to avoid human and animal contact with the waters of the Leviathan and Bryant creeks and avoid fish from those waters until the overflow is evaluated.

Mayer said a field technician was at the mine site last week taking measurements and reading water quality instruments.

He said the instruments were checking samples every 15 minutes in Leviathan and Bryan creeks.

Leviathan Creek is a tributary to the East Fork of the Carson River. Land owned by the Washoe Tribe is bisected by the 10-mile polluted stream system.

Water officials said the runoff was precipitated by the wettest winter in 10 years.

"Overflow will continue for a few days until an emergency treatment system is able to neutralize the acid mine drainage stored in one of the ponds and the treated water is discharged to Leviathan Creek," said Harold Singer, executive officer of the Lahontan regional board.

Mayer said because the flow of water into the East Fork is 10 to 100 times higher than the flow at Leviathan, officials wouldn't be able to tell the difference with the added contamination coming in at Leviathan Creek because the volume of water was so great.

"When it gets to the summer, all water levels go down," Mayer said. "With this kind of contamination, there's a good chance you would see a rise in some of the metals. That could present some problems."

The level of cleanup at the abandoned sulfur mine in the past five years helped mitigate the effect of the overflow, Mayer said.

"Things are not perfect, that's for sure," he said. "This summer we're expecting to make some big strides."

The EPA announced plans last summer to install a $7 million system to provide year-round cleanup at the site which they hoped to have in place at the end of this year.

"It's so hard to work up there, there are so many challenges, you've got to keep working at it," Mayer said.

""Every time you think you can relax, nature will remind you, 'Here comes something' you didn't expect or weren't prepared for."

Officials are testing soil on either side of the creek in the Washoe tribal land to determine how plants and animals have been affected in the last 50 years.

"What should be a beautiful mountain creek is still receiving untreated contaminants in winter," Mayer said.

He said community input is critical for the cleanup process.

"The community really needs to keep pushing to get this fixed once and for all," Mayer said. "Keep complaining to elected officials. Give comments during our comment periods for potential solutions."

The site at 7,000 feet in the Sierra, was first developed in 1863 as a source of copper sulfate for processing silver ore on the Comstock Lode in Virginia City. The mine closed but was reopened for sulfur mining from 1935 to 1941.

When the Anaconda Company purchased the property in 1951, open-pit mining was used to extract sulfur. The mine was operated at Leviathan for about 10 years generating tens of millions of cubic yards of waste.

The state of California acquired the site in 1984 for $50,000.

The abandoned mine was declared a Superfund site in 2000 by the federal government.

The bulk of the cleanup expense is being paid by BP Atlantic Richfield with other costs funded by the Lahontan board and the EPA.


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


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