U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt signed an agreement that will defer any Superfund potential priority listing at the former Anaconda copper mine in Nevada for at least four years. The move follows a pledge by Atlantic Richfield Co., a subsidery of the petroleum company BP, to clean up the site without the enforcement of the U.S. Superfund law.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said that the new agreement 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.
The Associated Press reported that 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 EPA first proposed priority Superfund listing 18 years ago and renewed its push for the designation in 2015 at the site covering 16 km2 (6 sq miles).
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 the agreement.
"The deferral agreement is a perfect example of cooperative federalism in action," Pruitt said. "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.