RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevada wants to back out of an agreement to designate a toxic mine a priority U.S. Superfund site — a move critics warn could leave state taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions dollars in cleanup costs, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
State regulators say a new strategy with private backing would save money over the next 10 years and ensure faster cleanup, especially given the Trump administration's sometimes hostile view of the EPA.
However, the watchdog group Great Basin Resource Watch says the state's unprecedented effort would further delay restoration of groundwater polluted by nearly 100 tons of uranium and other contaminants abandoned at the former Anaconda copper mine about 80 miles southeast of Reno
The group accuses the state of initiating a clandestine effort to re-establish Nevada as the lead authority in the cleanup of the toxic stew just months after it had dropped its long-held opposition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to add the World War II-era mine to the list of the nation's most polluted sites.
The nearby Yerington Paiute Tribe is suing previous mine owners Atlantic Richfield Corp. and BP America Inc. for tens of millions of dollars.
The lawsuit filed last month in Yerington Paiute Tribal Court alleges the companies "masked the true extent of contamination ... despite their knowledge of the serious health and environmental effects associated with exposure to toxic and hazardous substances, and despite orders and warning from health and environmental regulators."
EPA officials have argued for years that adding the 6-square-mile site to the priority list would make it eligible for federal money to pay for 90 percent of the tens of millions of dollars needed to start cleaning up the most highly contaminated waste ponds.
The nearly 90 million gallons of acidic solution left behind would cover about 80 football fields at 10 feet deep.
The EPA published the proposed listing in the Federal Register last September.
Kay Scherer, the state official overseeing Nevada's Department of Environmental Protection at the time, said the state was pleased with the listing proposal, characterizing it as the next step to secure federal funds to help with remediation of the mine site.
But Great Basin Resource Watch Director John Hadder says within months the state had already initiated private discussions to scuttle the listing.
He said residents were left out of those discussions and didn't learn until the end of June that the state and Atlantic Richfield Corp. had signed a preliminary "framework agreement" on June 13 regarding the cleanup strategy.
The state sent the EPA a formal request on July 31 to keep the site off the priority list.
EPA spokeswoman Margo Perez-Sullivan confirmed the agency is evaluating the request.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and others have raised concerns about the ability of EPA to provide the money necessary to speed cleanup efforts. They also cited the stigma of a Superfund designation as detrimental to the economy of the area.
His previous agreement involving the EPA listing came with a caveat that the state could continue to seek a private party to cover the cleanup costs.
Brett Clanton, a spokesman for Atlantic Richfield, now owned by BP America, said the company has spent $150 million over the past 10 years investigating the site and wants to accelerate the cleanup process.
"If an agreement can be finalized, deferral will provide funding certainty for the cleanup, save taxpayers more than $45 million, expedite cleanup and prevent the community from being stigmatized by Superfund designation," Clanton said in an email to AP. He said they are currently evaluating the Yerington Paiute lawsuit.
The draft agreement obtained by the AP states any final cleanup plan would be substantially similar to EPA's original plan. It says EPA would periodically review the site to determine if the response is progressing adequately and would maintain authority to terminate the deal.
Jo Ann Kittrell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the state invited the watchdog group to participate in planning meetings last spring, but it declined. She said the agreement would make clear the state won't take on any new liabilities.
Kittrell said the deal provides more certainty about funding and getting the site cleaned up in the next 10 years.
The draft agreement estimates completion of the cleanup by 2029, but critics said it's an unrealistic deadline and could leave Nevada taxpayers liable for cleanup costs.