Cleaning Up Blight And Perceptions At The Anaconda Copper Mine

Apr 27, 2016

Aerial shot of the Anaconda Copper Mine, with the city of Yerington in the foreground.
Credit Ken Lund / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

With Governor Sandoval’s reluctant approval, the EPA can now propose adding the Anaconda Copper Mine site to its National Priority List. The move would open up federal funding to help in cleanup efforts. But there’s ongoing concern that it could create a negative stigma for area farmers. Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick reports.

David Peri, along with his wife Pam, are the owners of Peri and Sons Farms.

“Our big thing that we moved down here to do is fresh market onions,” says Peri. “We’re one of the larger grower/packer/shippers in the country.”

They own and operate more than 3,000 acres of farmland in Nevada and California, and employ upwards of 1,800 people. As we walk around their headquarters in Yerington, which looks more like an office park than a farm, he explains the history.

“Then in 2006 we had an opportunity to start growing organic veg, leafy greens. That’s broccoli, cauliflower, romaine, iceberg and all the babies: spinach, lettuce, kale.”

The headquarters for Peri and Sons Farms in Yerington.
Credit Noah Glick

Some of their land lies next door to the Anaconda Copper Mine. Does being so close worry the third-generation vegetable farmer?

“It’s real simple. What we grow, we eat too,” says Peri. “We’re not going to want to be eating something that isn’t as healthy as we can possibly produce it.”

“We’ve tested the water, land and produce itself—and there are no contaminants,” says Jared Blumenfeld with the EPA. “People should not feel anything but positive in getting local, Nevada agriculture from the Mason Valley.”

The EPA has been working with farmers, like the Peris, who say their land has been thoroughly examined.

“We’re one of the first large onion farms in the U.S. to get the sustainable agriculture award. And that’s extensive testing,” says David Peri. “Anybody who says there’s imminent danger, when that gets printed that’s not true.”

The EPA has been studying the Anaconda site since 2001, when the agency first looked into putting it on its National Priority List. Blumenfeld says all this data gives them a better idea of the scope of the issue.

“We have 355 groundwater wells that are testing water quality today. Most superfund sites don’t have that level of understanding,” Blumenfeld says.

But, as with everything about the Anaconda, it’s not that simple. There are two issues at play: one involving groundwater contamination and another involving toxic fluid management. Let’s look at groundwater first.

ARCO and parent company, BP America are legally responsible for this part of the cleanup. In 2013 the companies reached a nearly $20 million settlement with residents that paid for legal fees and property damage, set up a medical monitoring fund and connected people with affected wells to the city water supply. ARCO has since committed an additional $10 million.

A shot of the Anaconda Copper Mine site. The yellow areas are heap leach pads built by Arimetco. An NPL listing would open up federal funding to clean up that portion of the site.
Credit Nevada Governor's Office

Now, let’s move on to toxic fluids. There are currently a handful of what are called “evaporation ponds” on the property that are filling up fast, and the company responsible for managing this issue, has since gone bankrupt. That’s why the EPA and the governor ultimately agreed to move this portion of the site onto the National Priority List. Here’s Blumenfeld.

“At the moment, there’s zero money in it. We need to move into construction. The state is unable to put the kind of money forward for construction.”

But before moving forward, the governor and other state and community groups wanted reassurances from the EPA that if listed, the site would get the funding needed—not just the negative stigma.

Leo Drozdoff is the director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“This state has an extensive mining history, we’re good at this. We know how to deal with mine reclamation,” says Drozdoff. “So our ability to do that is that we’ll be able to control costs better, we’ll be able to do it at a quicker time frame.”

If accepted on the National Priority List, the state is on the hook for ten percent of the estimated $31 million price tag for this project.

“More importantly, we’ll do what the community wants and that’s for the site to be reclaimed and get off the list,” says Drozdoff.

Getting the site cleaned up is something the Peris want to see too.

“We are stewards of the land. We care about the land and the economy and many other things in this area,” says Pamela Peri.

David adds, “That’s why we’re for the listing, because they finally know what to do and they rest us assured that they have the funding for it.”

So, What Does The Listing Mean?

If the Anaconda Copper Mine makes it onto the EPA’s National Priority List, federal funding could go toward one specific cleanup project at the site.

Dave Emme is with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and he says the best way to think of the Anaconda Mine is in two columns.

“One being associated with the historic Anaconda copper operation in a time before modern environmental regulations were in place,” says Emme. “The other column being some copper operations in the 80s and 90s by a company called Arimetco.”

The cleanup for that historic operation is being handled by ARCO, a subsidiary of BP America. The other portion, tied to more modern activity, has another issue: the company responsible for cleanup isn’t around.

In the late 1970s, Arimetco bought a small portion of the site and built what are called “heap leach pads,” where sulfuric acid and other chemicals are used to basically separate copper from the earth.

But they went bankrupt, leaving this toxic fluid with nowhere to go. Pumps were added to move the excess fluid into manmade, “evaporation ponds,” a temporary fix.

Emme says the permanent solution is to cover these pads with soil caps.

“What we’re doing is capturing rainwater that falls on that cap, rather than allowing it to infiltrate into the heaps where we have to continually manage the fluid,” Emme says. “So over time we would see the amount of fluid we would have to manage to decline.”

The site’s potential listing will go up for public comment in September. Congress will approve the National Priority List next March. If accepted, work could start on the site by the end of next year.