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Superfund status is overreaction to Leviathan

by David Griffith

Before the first $5 million or $6 million was spent on cleaning up the Leviathan Mine, I took a raft trip down the East Fork of the Carson River. It was very evident where the Leviathan Mine discharge entered the Carson River. The water was extremely turbid in the mixing zone and there was an extensive zone of strongly iron-stained pebbles and boulders in the river bed. However, further down stream there were no apparent ill effects.

This spring, I took the same trip in a kayak. There was no obvious evidence in the water where the Leviathan Mine discharge entered the Carson. It was evident that the Leviathan Mine is currently not doing any major damage to waters down stream.

A review of the press coverage in the Reno Gazette Journal, and what I have read in The Record- Courier and Alpine Enterprise reveal many allegations, but no scientific data. There were no references to credible scientific studies documenting the extent of the damage or degree of threat to the water supply of the Carson Valley. At a public meeting held in Alpine County on Dec. 2, the EPA indicated that there were essentially no scientific studies showing that the East Fork of the Carson River or the Carson Valley were significantly, adversely affected by the Leviathan Mine.

When I read that Douglas County had requested that the Leviathan Mine be declared a Superfund site, but only if the site would be restricted to Alpine County, I thought it was worthwhile to take a more detailed look.

Ten to 15 years ago, I prospected in the area, and so I have some familiarity with prior conditions. At the same time I was involved with mine permitting and so was familiar with the problems at the Leviathan and California Regional Water Quality Control Board-Lahontan’s (Lahontan) program to alleviate them. I recently revisited most of these spots along Bryant Creek and the East Fork of the Carson River to refresh my memory.

It is true that currently in the East Fork of the Carson River, both below and above the confluence with Bryant Creek, there are strongly iron-stained and iron-cemented substrate gravels. However, this is most likely due to groundwater seeps associated with strongly altered volcanic rocks that are exposed adjacent to the seeps in both the East Fork of the Carson River and the lower one mile of Bryant Creek. The same phenomena can be seen in the East Fork of the Carson River as far as 15 miles upstream from its confluence withBryant Creek, and can be seen in terrace gravels over 50 feet above the current channel. This indicates that this natural geologic process has been going on for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years, long before there was any human activity near the Leviathan Mine. In contrast with the iron-stained substrate gravels, the loose pebbles and cobbles at the surface are generally not iron-stained, indicating that there is no significant contamination of the surface water flowing in the river at this time.

Despite this natural discharge of poor quality groundwater into the East Fork of the Carson River, the water quality is essentially “good”, and has been for some time. The Lahontan Fish Hatchery located in the Carson Valley about one mile downstream from the old dam above Dresslerville has been in operation for about thirty years. Their water comes from wells which presumably are recharged from the river. They do not treat the water. Fish of the trout family are some of the most sensitive species to the alleged pollution from the Leviathan Mine, and the success of the hatchery indicates that the Leviathan Mine is not affecting in any significant way the ground water quality of the Carson Valley.

The remediation implemented by Lahontan originally contemplated discharging the overflow from the holding ponds during the maximum flow in Leviathan Creek. Unfortunately in the last two years the ponds have overflowed when Leviathan Creek was at a minimum, not a maximum. This caused considerable grief due to lack of buffering capacity. The simplestsolution is not to wait for the holding ponds to overflow, but to deliberately release next year’s potential overflow this year, when the flow and buffering capacity of Leviathan Creek are at a maximum. It can be a controlled release rather than the present uncontrolled release which is causing so much concern. There already are remote monitors installed on the site, and with a few more similar monitors and some remotely controlled valves it would not even be necessary to have someone at the site to control and monitor the situation.

If in fact there is a problem with contaminated water supply somewhere in the Carson Valley, the authorities should act promptly to identify the problem and provide a temporary alternate water supply. The source of the contaminated water needs to be identified through appropriate scientific studies, and then appropriate action taken. Any time spent pointing fingers at an unlikely source of the supposed contaminated water will be time lost in rectifying the actual problem.

The Leviathan Mine is an eyesore, and is undoubtedly having a negative effect on Leviathan and Bryant creeks, but there is no evidence that it is an immediate threat to the East Fork of the Carson River, the Carson Valley, or human health. I would be happy to show representatives from the responsible regulatory agencies what I have observed, which can only be seen when the water level in the East Fork of the Carson River is extremely low, as it is now.

Based on what is known today it would be highly speculative to list this site as a Superfund site, and would be akin to using a sledgehammer to drive a tack.

n David Griffith is a geologist and a Markleeville resident.