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Officials negotiate cleanup

by Sheila Gardner

Negotiations for the cleanup of the abandoned Leviathan Mine are under way between the former owners and trustees representing those with property interests in the path of acid drainage runoff from the giant open pit.

Vicki Rosen, of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said Friday representatives of ARCO met in Reno last week with trustees for the Washoe Tribe, Nevada Department of Environmental Protection, United States departments of Interior, Justice, Fish and Wildlife, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control.

The Alpine County mine formerly was owned by the Anaconda Co., now a subsidiary of ARCO. The site is now owned by the state of California and managed by the Lahontan region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“We’ve presented short-term requirements which would include something quick to mitigate the situation, to long-term requirements that would include complete mitigation and natural resources damage assessment,” said Rosen, EPA community involvement coordinator in San Francisco.

“How the negotiations work out still is to be determined, but we see some cooperation there,” she said.

Topics include who will do the cleanup work and who will pay for it.

Rosen said she wasn’t sure when the EPA would send representatives back to the 250-acre mine, approximately six miles east of the California-Nevada border.

The EPA’s cleanup work was suspended last fall when cold temperatures forced an end to a project geared to treat acid mine drainage being collected in evaporation ponds at the mine site.

“We’re not sure when we will return to the site. It depends on what happens next physically there and when we can get there. Until we have easier access, nothing can really be done,” said Rosen.

Dan Suter, EPA on-site coordinator, said he hopes work will resume at the mine in May or June.

“ARCO will do it, or we’ll have our people on site and we’ll go to cost recovery.”

Leviathan Creek, which flows through the site before emptying into the Carson River, contains levels of arsenic, mercury, copper, lead, zinc and other heavy metals in excess of state and federal water quality standards.

The creek passes through Washoe tribal and U.S. Forest Service property before feeding into the East Fork of the Carson River.

“Since the late 1800s, we’ve had to endure the impacts of that mine,” said Washoe Tribal Chairman Brian Wallace. “It is continuing to render certain parts of the reservation and tribal members’ interests literally lifeless.”

Two recent federal reports add more fuel to allegations that the long-abandoned mine continues to cause environmental problems for users of the Carson River.

One report details the levels of aluminum, arsenic, mercury and nickel in 1992 samples of crayfish downstream from the East Fork of the Carson River near Gardnerville. A second report talks about the impact of the January 1997 flooding which ultimately deposited 600,000 tons of sediment and 10,000 pounds of total mercury which flowed down the Carson River through Carson Valley to Fort Churchill

Developed in 1863, the mine was originally a source of copper sulfate for processing silver ore at the Comstock Mines in Virginia City.

According to an EPA history, the mine was inactive from 1872 to 1935, but reopened for development of the sulfur body until it closed again in 1941. When the Anaconda Co. purchased the property in 1951, it was decided the sulfur should be extracted by open pit methods, resulting in millions of cubic yards of mine waste being generated.

“This is where our children play,” said Wallace. “This is where the tribal members in these areas harvest pinenuts and game. It concerns the whole issue of our subsistence lifestyles that are still ongoing. This has an impact on our cultural resources. Our Washoe pharmacology has been impacted. There are traditional healing processes which are dependent on the bounty and richness which the natural landscape provides us. There is still significant involvement by the Washoe people with regard to those methods and processes of traditional healing.

“It’s not just tribal interests,” said Wallace. “It involves the overall well-being of the East Fork of the Carson River. Our efforts as responsible trustees is to work with our federal counterparts looking for resources to throw into the assessment process. We’re working at the president’s request and with Secretary Babbit’s office in the deliverance of resources to move fast on the assessment process. The justice and interior departments have consented to represent the Tribe on damage assessments and claims.

“We’re still settling with the trustees about what this year’s activities are going to be as we try to dilute and deal with the significant acid mine drainage,” he said.

Douglas County commissioners echo the tribe’s concerns.

Commissioners Jacques Etchegoyhen and Bernie Curtis have been meeting with tribal representatives and federal officials to discuss the cleanup.

“We’ve got a serious environmental problem. That’s the water we may eventually drink. It should be a concern to everybody. If your water’s tainted in Nevada, there aren’t many issues that supersede that,” said Etchegoyhen.

“We use it for irrigation. Is it tainted or not? I think it’s spooky. Mercury and other heavy metals almost all are accumulators. It never flushes out of your system. Whether you are a human, crayfish or bald eagle, I wonder what the long-term effects are?” Etchegoyhen said.

“It’s a very, very serious situation with sulfur leaching through Bryant Creek, you have a downstream effect in the river,” said Commissioner Curtis. “It’s only a matter of time before it could have an effect on the groundwater. The tribal assessment has been very good of the situation. The Washoe Tribe is really working diligently on this. The Alpine County Board of Supervisors is up to speed and very, very concerned.

“It looks like a monumental financial commitment and neither county has those kind of resources,” said Curtis.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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