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Progress made at Leviathan

by Sheila Gardner

Ranjit Gill raised his arms in victory. Since 1983, he’s been traveling back and forth to the Leviathan Mine, trying to clean up the toxic water flowing from the abandoned mine high in the Sierra.

At 10:15 a.m. Thursday, the solution seemed at hand.

“It’s so joyous, so wonderful,” Gill said. “I am 100 percent certain we will correct this problem.”

The cause for celebration was the successful removal of heavy metals from the water discharged into Leviathan Creek that has posed a threat to Carson Valley’s drinking water for decades.

“At the end of 2000, we want no untreated acid mine drainage leaving this site,” said Harold Singer, executive director of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California agency overseeing cleanup of the mine.

Singer took reporters and photographers on a tour of the mine site Thursday at the same time the water treatment was proclaimed a success.

“Once you treat the discharge – pull the metals out and raise the pH balance – it shouldn’t have the impact on the creek,” said Singer.

Gill and the Lahontan staff have been on site every year since the early 1980s, when the Leviathan’s pollution problems became clear and the federal and state governments passed more stringent environmental standards.

Project Manager Chris Stetler is spending his third summer at Leviathan Mine. He’s been on site since early August and will stay until October.

n Running out of time. “The last two years, I watched the EPA and ARCO attempts and they didn’t work,” Stetler said. “I wish we had more time. We’ll be back next spring as soon as we can get up here.”

The Lahontan agency hopes to treat 8 million gallons of water before the cold weather forces the crew out of the Sierra for the winter.

The mine has been closed since 1962, and is under consideration by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site. That designation would make more money available to clean up the site, but also gives the EPA more clout in forcing the cleanup.

“Two summers ago, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to bring a treatment system in, they were unable to do it, and they pulled the treatment out,” Singer said. “Last year, under a directive from the EPA, Anaconda tried to remove pond water from the site with an enhanced evaporation system. That didn’t work.”

Singer said the state of California hasn’t taken a position on making the Leviathan a Superfund site, a decision that could force a bigger burden of cleanup on taxpayers if the EPA determines California is the primary responsible party.

“The state hasn’t taken a position on the listing. Until they do, I am not in a position to talk,” Singer said.

Singer predicted that determining ownership of the mine could end up in court.

“Superfund is a federal law that gives the EPA the authority to require parties to clean up the site. A subset of the Superfund is national priority listing. That gives the EPA access to a bigger pot of federal money only if the owner is unwilling. It doesn’t mean EPA will bring the trucks out and clean up the site.”

Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, has requested that the mine be placed on the National Priorities List because the toxic water passes through tribal land. Douglas County Commissioners have a stake in the cleanup because of the proximity of the toxic Leviathan Creek to Carson Valley’s drinking supply.

Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan said last month he would ask federal EPA Administrator Carol Browner to visit the site.

n Fudge, anyone? The two-step treatment process under way Thursday extracts the harmful chemicals from the water and converts the bi-product into what Singer characterized as harmless “fudge” which may be used to revegetate the area. The treated water goes back into the creek and the toxic material will be transported to a hazardous waste site in the California central valley.

“It’s a simple process,” Singer said. “We’ve done it in the lab many, many times.”

Bringing that simple process to the Leviathan Mine has cost the state of California $1 million this summer, bringing to $7.5 million the total spent on the cleanup.

Nevada has contributed $100,000 in matching federal grant money toward the cleanup, Singer estimated.

The Leviathan was first mined in 1863 for copper sulfate to process silver in Virgina City. The mine was a dedicated copper mine until 1869.