RENO, Nev. — State environmental regulators are banking on a pledge from petroleum company BP to expedite cleanup of an abandoned Nevada mine without the teeth of the U.S. Superfund law typically used to force responsible parties to pay for remediation at sites that are so big and badly polluted.
Gov. Brian Sandoval said this week that a new agreement with Atlantic Richfield Co., a BP subsidiary that owns part of the former Anaconda Copper mine, will speed the cleanup of a toxic stew of uranium and other contaminants that has brewed for decades at the World War II-era mine in the small city of Yerington, southeast of Reno.
But critics say abandoning the Superfund path Sandoval conditionally agreed to two years ago could let the corporations off the hook for more than $100 million in cleanup costs they’re ultimately responsible for.
The critics fear doing so will further delay addressing the most pressing threat to human health and the environment — a plume of contaminated groundwater that gravitated into wells on neighboring private lands.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first proposed priority Superfund listing 18 years ago and renewed its push for the designation in 2015 at the site covering 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) — an area the size of 3,000 football fields.
Sandoval reluctantly agreed so as to secure the necessary federal funding for cleanup the state can’t afford. But last summer the state reversed course, citing concerns about the uncertainty of EPA’s shrinking budget combined with Atlantic Richfield’s willingness to put up $40 million.
Over neighboring Native American tribes’ objections, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed an agreement this week to defer any Superfund potential priority listing for at least four years.
“The deferral agreement is a perfect example of cooperative federalism in action,” Pruitt said at the mine on Monday.
“This is a landmark day for those who have worked to accomplish a path toward achieving our shared goal of cleaning up the mine site,” Sandoval said about the state’s resumption of the lead role in the cleanup efforts the federal agency had led since 2003.
Atlantic Richfield President Robert Genovese said putting the state in charge advances cleanup “more effectively without the stigma of a Superfund designation.”
“Atlantic Richfield commits itself to a remedy that saves the taxpayers approximately $40 million by not requiring federal funding to clean up environmental impacts created by other companies no longer in business,” he said.
Leaders of the Yerington Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes said returning primary oversight to the state allows BP to “buy their choice in regulatory agency” and place the site’s “hefty financial burden on the shoulders of Nevada taxpayers.”
“The environmental issues are clearly BP’s so the idea they are ‘volunteering’ anything is more than a misstatement,” said Dietrick McGinnis, the tribes’ environmental engineering consultant. “If the site had become listed, additional regulatory tools would be available to EPA to force BP to pay for their mess.”
Atlantic Richfield purchased the site from Anaconda in 1977 and shut down all operations in 1978.
From 1952-78, the mine produced 1.7 billion pounds of copper. EPA determined over the years that uranium was produced as a byproduct of processing the copper and that the radioactive waste was initially dumped into dirt-bottomed ponds that — unlike modern lined ponds — leaked into the groundwater.
Rural neighbors won a $19.5 million settlement in 2013 from the companies they accused of covering up the contamination, but the controversy over cleanup has continued.
Nevada Davison of Environmental Protection Administrator Greg Lavoto said EPA still maintains general oversight and has authority to designate priority Superfund status if necessary.
“It really boiled down to EPA’s status with regard to funding Superfund programs,” he said in explaining the state’s desire to defer the designation. “They are stretched pretty thin.”
He added: “It’s been 13 or 14 years they’ve had the lead and I think we could gotten more done in that time,” he said. “If Atlantic Richfield decides to start giving us a hard time or isn’t complying, we’ll report that.”