Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Mining company target of environmental lawsuit

A California environmental group plans to sue Molycorp Inc. for polluting ground water near an elementary school and for posing a threat to water supplying Nevada's state line casinos.

Communities for a Better Environment, a statewide environmental organization in California, could file a lawsuit as soon as next week after serving notice on the company in March, attorney Scott Kuhn said Wednesday.

Molycorp has operated a rare-earth lanthanide mine, mill, chemical plant and evaporation ponds on 900 acres about 55 miles south of Las Vegas near Interstate 15 since 1951. The minerals mined are used to produce the color in television screens. The mine also produces molybdenum, an alloy in steel.

The closest community to the mine is Mountain Pass, Calif.

One Mountain Pass child had his colon removed and others have experienced stunted growth and seizures, Kuhn said. Community residents are asking that the school, less than a mile from the mining operations, be moved.

"We are all concerned about the health of the children who went to school at Mountain Pass Elementary," Roxanne Lang Freeman said. Freeman, a CBE member whose, has a son who went to the school for several years and has a rare gastrointestinal disease.

In 1995 Molycorp released more than 2 million pounds of pollution, according to California environmental records.

Potential ground water pollution under investigation includes lead, arsenic, thorium, uranium, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, chlorine, barium chloride, ammonia, nitrate and zinc.

Under California's Proposition 65, the state version of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, Molycorp would have to notify its workers and nearby residents of any health risks from chemical releases if the CBE suit is successful.

The Clark County Health District monitors ground water on the Nevada side of the area, according to Ed Wojcik, a senior supervisor. Whiskey Pete's hotel-casino in Primm uses water drawn from wells across the border in California.

"There have been no exceedences of safe drinking water standards in Nevada," Wojcik said. "It's pretty remote."

It could take 50 years or more before contaminated ground water escaping from an evaporation pond 15 miles southwest of the Nevada border crosses a dry lake bed, according to estimates by California officials and the health district.

"Is there a potential for contamination problems in the future? Yes," Wojcik said. "We're going to continue to monitor it closely."

The Las Vegas Valley Water District operates a small drinking water system in Jean and records indicate no industrial pollution there.

California records indicate traces of industrial chemicals in the ground water near Molycorp.

Former workers at Molycorp told the CBE that numerous accidents and safety hazards went unreported at the facility.

The San Bernardino County district attorney's office is investigating criminal complaints against Molycorp.

Molycorp, a wholly-owned subsidy of Unocal, could pose a threat to the Mojave National Preserve and critical habitat for the Mojave Desert tortoise. The company did not respond to repeated telephone calls.

The company reported numerous spills from its discharge pipeline in 1996 and 1997. The mining operation recovers pipe scale from the discharge and recovers rare earth materials.

In 1997 Unocal agreed to pay $80 million to settle damage claims in a lawsuit filed by 6,000 people suing a refinery near San Francisco over chemical clouds that blew over two communities. Unocal sold everything but the mine in California.

Unocal also paid fines that same year of more than $2 million to local authorities and $951,000 in criminal penalties. Under a "good neighbor" agreement, Unocal agreed to spend about $4.5 million on safety and environmental improvements and contribute to area school districts.

When Tosco Refining Co. bought Unocal for about $1.4 billion in April, the company agreed to honor the pact.