EPA abandons Leviathan Mine for winter
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is abandoning the cleanup site at the Leviathan Mine for the winter as colder temperatures bring an end to an experimental water treatment system.
“We thought we’d be here for a month or so with this treatment system, but the solids are too much for our centrifuge. We’re getting a little ice on the ponds and the clean water is starting to freeze,” said Daniel B. Suter, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.
“The water we’re producing is not good enough to discharge back into Leviathan Creek.”
Suter said Friday the system developed by engineers in Los Angeles didn’t take into account the colder weather. He estimated temperatures at the mine site at just above freezing.
“We’re cutting our losses now and demobilizing even as we speak,” Suter said.
The EPA crew has been at the site since Oct. 6 and should be gone by Monday, he said.
“We’re building up the berm around the lower pond for some additional physical containment to avoid the excess run-off in the spring. Other than that, it’s back to the drawing board,” he said.
The Leviathan Mine is located in Alpine County near the Nevada state line, approximately 25 miles southeast of Gardnerville. The site is owned by the state of California and managed by the Lahontan region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The mine opened in 1863 to provide copper sulfate used in processing silver ore in Virginia City. Off-and-on mining operations ceased at the Leviathan in 1962.
Leviathan Creek which flows through the site contains levels of arsenic, mercury, copper, lead, zinc and other heavy metals in excess of state and federal water quality standards.
Suter said EPA officials met Wednesday with Washoe Tribal officials who were concerned about the creek which passes through Indian lands and U.S. Forest Service property before feeding into the East Fork of the Carson River.
“We explained what procedures we feel should be followed and laid down some options,” Suter said. “I think the Tribe has been shunted in the past. We’re trying to get the state and the Tribe back together. We need to really work closely with the Tribe as a partner.”
Suther said the Leviathan Mine cleanup could be placed on the EPA’s national priority list. He explained that companies sometimes take it upon themselves to assist in the cleanup rather than be placed on the government’s list.
“Then it becomes a very large Superfund site which opens a lot of resources for cleanup,” Suter said. “Companies don’t like to be on the hook for being on the NPL. They may get quicker or more complete cleanup as a result.”
Suter said when the EPA returns in the spring, the government agency will be working toward treating the water rather than containment. He said until late September, the EPA had not been called onto the site.
“The state’s got boxes and boxes of files we’ve hardly looked at,” he said.
“If I had my druthers, I’d much rather be treating the water,” he said. “I think a permanent treatment system here would look at the site as a complete entity. The work that’s been done here in the past has been good, but we need to look at the entire site.”
So far, approximately $4.7 million has been spent on the cleanup, Suter estimated. The EPA team had a budget of $1.5 million, but he said only about $100,000 has been spent.
“We’re trying to get more ‘responsible party’ involvement,” Suter said. “That would include the state of California and possibly ARCO.”
At one point, Anaconda Co. – an ARCO subsidiary – owned the mine. ARCO negotiated a $2.3 million settlement with the water quality board after the state threatened to sue.
“It’s definitely an environmental problem,” Suter said. “You’ve got nasty water flowing down that creek and there are heavy metals still in it.”