Thursday, July 29, 2004 | 10:53 a.m.
Many in Yerington had suspected the soil at the contaminated old mine site in Lyon County might be radioactive. They knew there was uranium in the groundwater and in some residents' wells.
But nobody knew for sure.
For years, state and federal agencies and the company responsible for the site cleanup had been working on a plan to test the soil. Even as contractors walked the area unprotected and dirt bikers used it as a playground, officials dithered over how and where and what to test.
Finally, in June, a worker for the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that is one of the groups working on the cleanup, was walking around with a Geiger counter and got a radiation reading that seemed too high to be true. He took about 100 soil samples from the area -- the part of the former copper mine where metals were once processed by pouring acid over them.
Nine of the samples were rushed to the lab. When they came back, they showed radiation levels as high as 200 times what is considered natural. The rest of the results are due back by Friday.
The preliminary results were the subject of a Monday morning teleconference of the Yerington Technical Working Group, which brings together representatives of the agencies working on the site, the company and the surrounding communities.
The group discussed measures to contain radioactive material on the site and minimize people's exposure in view of the new radioactivity data, said Jim Sickles, remedial project manager for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
BLM conducted the soil tests that detected radiation because "we want to make sure none of our workers out there are exposed to radiation levels that could be harmful," Carson City BLM spokesman Mark Struble said.
"Based on these preliminary results, our managers said, 'Hold the phone here. Let's see what kind of safety equipment we need, what kind of exposure we might be talking about,' " he said.
While uranium, which constantly degrades into radioactive particles, was known to be present on the site, "I don't think we realized we might have quite elevated levels (of radioactivity) in the soil," Struble said.
The samples, he noted, were taken from the top 15 inches of dirt in the area.
"The bureau is going to want to mitigate that in a big, big hurry," he said. "This is a windy state, and there's a possibility dust could blow off the site."
But the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which leads the cleanup effort, and the Atlantic Richfield Co., which is responsible for cleaning up the site, say they are irritated that BLM conducted the tests that found the radiation.
"We've been working on a site remediation plan for two years," said Dan Cummings, a spokesman for energy giant British Petroleum, which owns ARCO. "We were prepared to go forward and start testing this month, but because of this work by the feds, which we were not told about, ours (testing) has been put on hold."
The soil tests came out of the blue, said Jim Najima, head of the state environmental division's Bureau of Corrective Actions.
"BLM did this on their own. It was not part of the work plans," Najima said. The test results were no surprise, he added. "We were anticipating some type of detection (of radiation) in that area," he said.
Najima said BLM's release of the data did not give citizens an appropriate explanation and context for the information and thereby risked causing an unwarranted panic.
"If we really thought it was urgent, we would tell you that," Najima said, noting that the state agency has previously taken action to remove what it saw as the greatest imminent public health threats on the site.
But some accuse the environmental division of trying to manage people's perceptions of the mine site and its possible dangers.
On Monday, the agencies scheduled a closed meeting for Aug. 18 to decide how they would present the new information to the public at an open question-and-answer session on Aug. 25, said Robert Boyce, tribal manager of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, who listened in on Monday's conference call.
He said his fear is that the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, or NDEP, "is going to have the opportunity to structure and spin" its answers.
At previous public meetings, "any sensitive question has been deflected, and they (questioners) have been told that somebody from NDEP is going to get back to them," Boyce said. "But that has never occurred."
Uranium occurs naturally in the granite bedrock of the Yerington area. In the mining process that occurred there, sulfuric acid was poured over crushed rock, extracting the copper -- and the uranium. As early as the 1970s, the mine operator knew uranium was present; Anaconda Copper even considered refining and selling yellowcake uranium for use in nuclear reactors.
The levels of radiation detected at the site in Yerington, located about 40 miles east of Lake Tahoe, are not high enough to cause short-term effects like radiation sickness, Sickles said.
But long-term exposure to those levels could cause problems to develop, he said.
"At the highest levels they've detected, two hours (on the site) is about the equivalent of a chest X-ray," Sickles said.
To minimize that exposure, the agencies on Monday recommended that ARCO add weekend guards to the 3,600-acre mine site and improve fencing around it, Sickles said.
The agencies also recommended monitoring the air at the site for radioactive particles, restricting workers' time on the site and cementing over the most radioactive spots to hold down dust, he said. ARCO has not yet agreed to these steps.
The ease with which one BLM surveyor with a Geiger counter was able to document radioactivity in the soil shows that the state agency's efforts are lacking, said Elyssa Rosen, executive director of the Reno-based watchdog group Great Basin Mine Watch.
"The state of Nevada conducted insufficient monitoring for radioactivity," she said. "That dust kicks up, and it certainly could carry for miles. There are communities right on the edge of this thing. The state has known for about 20 years that there was uranium there, and it hasn't done anything." She was referring to documents in state files from the 1980s that showed uranium in the site's ponds at levels above drinking-water standards.
Yerington, with an estimated population of 2,902, is located barely 1,000 feet to the east of the mine site across the Walker River. Two neighborhoods, Sunset Hills and Weed Heights, abut the site to the north and west.
The Yerington Paiute Tribe reservation, with a population of about 1,000, is four miles north of the mine. To the south of the site lies the Walker River Paiute Tribe, whose members are concerned that the river that flows through their lands may be contaminated.
The Anaconda copper mine in Yerington was one of the world's largest producers of copper during the years it operated, between 1952 and 1978. When ARCO bought Anaconda, Yerington was not the only troublesome site the oil giant inherited; it has spent years working to clean up another abandoned mine near the town of Butte, Mont.
At the heart of the debate over cleaning up the mine is the technical matter of whether the Yerington mine site should be put on the list kept by Superfund, the federal government program that prioritizes the country's most hazardous toxic waste sites.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has put increasing pressure on Gov. Kenny Guinn to accept a Superfund designation. It is difficult but not impossible for a site to be listed without the state's consent.
"The governor and everyone else should join me in forcing (the mine) to be designated a Superfund site," Reid said on Friday. "It would force them (ARCO) to clean it up."
Reid said the new radioactivity discovery didn't surprise him but further proved the need for federal intervention. "I can remember I used to go up there to Weed Hills when the mine was operating," Reid said. "Now they've closed that mine, and it is a cesspool. It's very, very dangerous."
But the governor's office rejects Reid's assertion that the state doesn't have the resources, both financial and expertise-wise, to do the job. "The mitigation for the site, the cleanup of the site is going well," said Steve Robinson, Guinn's natural resources advisor. "Things are happening out there."
The governor believes Superfund designation would immediately lead to lawsuits, costing the state money and stalling the cleanup even further, Robinson said.
"On the other hand, if there is an immediate public health risk to inhabitants -- if the groundwater is contaminated to the point of endangering homes and families and the responsible party (ARCO) is not doing everything it can -- then he (Guinn) would consider a designation," Robinson said.
The EPA has asked for Superfund listing for the site but has been stymied by the state's resistance. Sickles said a designation would put teeth into the government agencies' requests to ARCO.
"ARCO has not been that thorough," Sickles said. "We've been beating on ARCO to do a better job investigating the site to figure out how to clean it up." Instead, he said, the company seems to want to do as few tests as possible.
If the site were on the Superfund list, government agencies would have more power to compel ARCO to do things it didn't want to, Sickles said.
The bottom line, Sickles said, is that radiation is now known to be present at the site and something will eventually have to be done about it. Ironically, in the end, uranium-contaminated materials might be trucked off to a less elaborate Yucca Mountain-type repository, he said.
"You've got enough radiation on the site that you can't just leave it there," Sickles said.