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Lessons learned from Leviathan

by Sheila Gardner

Pity the noble daphnia magna. On its tiny hard shell back, the crustacean bears the weight of the toxic Leviathan Mine and the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout.

So far, life in Leviathan and Bryant creeks is nothing for the “water flea” to write home about.

The so-called “index” organism’s purpose is to measure the health within an ecosystem that will indicate the overall health of that ecosytem.

In other words, the crustacean is used to determine whether an ecosystem is too toxic to support life even at its level. If the daphnia magna survives the ecosystem, it is served up as fish food.

The daphnia magna is no match for the toxins clogging up the two creeks.

The tale of the daphnia magna was one of the lessons learned Wednesday at a community workshop in Gardnerville sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to discuss the Leviathan Mine’s status as a Superfund site. The designation means the mine site is one of the most polluted in the country, but help is on the way.

The daphnia magna is one of the tools being used to measure levels of toxicity in the runoff from the Alpine County mine. The crustacean – alive and well in Mountaineer Creek – can’t survive even as surrogate fish food in the polluted Bryant and Levianthan creeks. The three creeks converge to feed into the Carson River.

Mayer and EPA ecologist Ned Black demonstrated with slides how they can stand at confluence and scoop up yellow gunk from the polluted creeks in one hand and normal stream bed discharge on the other side.

About 40 people, many representing state and federal agencies, attended the two-hour meeting at Carson Valley Middle School to learn how the Alpine County mine will be cleaned up and what impact those efforts might have on the rest of the area’s human and plant species.

“We’re at the stage of what is feasible,” said Kevin Mayer, project manager for the cleanup. “We’re not at the stage of what water quality standards we want.”

– Who does what? According to Mayer, the remediation plan has been written, but specifics are under negotiation with ARCO, former owners of the mine, and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California agency which has undertaken the cleanup of pollutants so far.

The mine, 25 miles southeast of Gardnerville, was developed in 1863 as a source of copper sulfate for processing silver ore in Virginia City. Pollution from the site was first reported in the 1950s, and the mine was closed in 1962.

Toxic water from the site has contaminated creeks that flow through Washoe Tribal land and into the Carson River, and could pollute the Valley’s water supply.

At the urging of the Washoe Tribe, Douglas and Alpine counties, U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan pressed the EPA to list the mine as a Superfund site. That means more money is available to clean up the site and gives the EPA more clout in forcing responsible parties to participate.

“We expect ARCO to comply,” Mayer said. “EPA contractors will oversee the work. Typically, we don’t tell the principal responsible party, ‘You will do $100,000 worth of work.’ We say, ‘We want this work done.’ Actually, they prefer to have it done that way.”

There is so much preliminary work that needs to be done, it’s too early to predict when the EPA effort will begin or how long it will last. Mayer said many factors determine when the site is at an acceptable level.

“The answer is simple,” he said. “We have to meet all relevant, applicable regulations and certain risk criteria,” he said. “That’s the simple answer. A model that satisfies every scientist is really tricky. As we develop the model, we have to see if it rings true to people who live around here, people who are concerned about wildlife. Every site has to take into account site specific issues.”

Mayer said the EPA would fix “big things first.”

“Hopefully, we’ll see huge improvements,” he said.

– Price tag. County Commissioner Bernie Curtis, who attended the meeting, said he expected the cleanup to exceed $40 million to $50 million.

“I think this is very positive for Alpine and Douglas counties. Douglas County and the Tribe have been working for at least the time that I’ve been on the board. It’s through the assistance and direction of Sen. Richard Bryan and Tom Baker that it’s now in the forefront. It’s been a continuing problem for many, many years, but now it looks like some mitigation can be accomplished in the near future.”

Audience members were concerned about who would pay for the cleanup.

“The Superfund is a tax on chemical stocks and oil companies,” Mayer said. “It expired in 1995 and the government collected $10 billion. A tough issue is that California is the land owner now, but in most senses of the word, they’re not the polluter.”

California taxpayers will pay for part of the cleanup as the current owners of the mine.

Work will resume this summer on a water treatment process under the direction of the water quality control board which removes five metals from the water before it is discharged into the creeks.