Proposal to sell land at Anaconda Mine Site prompts concern

Environmental watchdogs assert that land transaction not in the public interest and would compromise remediation efforts

Earlier this week, Great Basin Resource Watch and Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada submitted scoping comments to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stating that the proposed Yerington Anaconda Mine Site Disposal would not be in the public interest.

The scoping comments were submitted following BLM’s announcement on December 11, 2020 of their proposal for a land disposal, or sale, of BLM land associated with the Yerington Anaconda Mine Site to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). The submitted scoping comments cited the BLM proposal’s failure to meet criteria under the Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLMPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“BLM has the authority to do what they call ‘Land Disposals Transfer,’ which in this case would be the sale of land to the private entity,” John Hadder, Director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said. “That’s certainly allowed, but the BLM has to justify that it’s in the public interest. They are entrusted to protect public lands and they have to justify that [land transfer] is in the larger public interest.”

According to Hadder, this proposal isn’t the first attempt to transfer BLM land at the Anaconda Mine Site to ARCO, the responsible party of the mine site.

“There has been a process for the past couple years of looking at transferring the BLM land at the Anaconda Mine site from federal government control to Atlantic Richfield,” Hadder said. “Representative Amodei had a bill before Congress for a couple sessions running to convey this land through congressional action, and that bill never passed. So this is now another effort to do the same thing, using a little bit of a different pathway.” 

The majority of mining activities at the Anaconda Site occurred from 1953-1978. Then overseen by the Anaconda Copper Company, mining operations produced over 1.7 billion pounds of copper during the 25-year timeframe. In 1977, Anaconda Copper Company became a subsidiary of ARCO, who then became the responsible party of operations at the site. Mining operations at the Anaconda Site ceased in 1978, with all activities coming to a close in 1982. 

The company town of Weed Heights was named after Clyde E. Weed, chairman of the Anacononda board of directors. Today the neighborhood overlooking the mine is partly occupied and includes an RV park – image – Brian Bahouth/the Ally

It was then that Don Tibbals, a Lyon County resident, purchased private property at the site and leased it to small mining and industrial operations until Arimetco acquired the private property in 1989. Arimetco began re-mining operations on the site, constructing an electrowinning plant and five leach pads to produce copper before later filing for bankruptcy in 1997. 

In 2000, Arimetco abandoned the site without properly closing it as required by Nevada law, which is when the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) became involved in the stabilization of the site’s Fluid Management Systems associated with the Heap Leach Pads. In the same year, British Petroleum acquired ARCO, which today is a subsidiary of BP. 

Since then, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NDEP and ARCO entered into a consent agreement in which ARCO’s remediation responsibility includes the abandoned Arimetco portion of the site. 

To the east of the mine, agricultural lands mark big green squares of onions and other crops in the landscape. Farmers pump water from deep wells to irrigate their fields. Officials have yet to fully determine the mine’s full impact on adjacent agricultural activity – image – Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Over the years, there has been evidence of groundwater contamination and toxic drainage as it relates to the mine site. While the NDEP and EPA has largely overseen the clean-up and remediation efforts, ARCO has pledged to reimburse the remediation costs incurred.

ARCO reasons that if the land becomes private property, the remediation process can be streamlined. 

“Atlantic Richfield says that having to deal with the state of Nevada, BLM and the public makes it more complicated and it would be simpler if they could consolidate to be more efficient,” Hadder said. “If they had private ownership, it’s very possible that they could do [site remediation] faster. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t, the question that we have is would the level of clean-up be compromised under private ownership? We don’t know the answer to that and that needs to be explored in the Environmental Assessment of this land transfer.”

Hadder also believes BLM and state oversight of the remediation will hold ARCO accountable to meeting EPA standards.

“[BLM] has a responsibility to public lands to make sure that they’re being cleaned up and so they have to meet with ARCO to make sure that cleanup is in accordance with regulations that BLM follows,” Hadder said. “The lands will be managed better [with BLM oversight] because then at least ARCO has to answer to the public through BLM, as well as through the state of Nevada. So I think it improves the management because it puts in more oversight.” 

ARCO, who would acquire the public lands at the site through this land disposal, has expressed no interest in re-mining the site themselves. In light of this, BLM announced they will not consider future re-mining of the land in the proposal, which is required according to the FLMPA.

The Anaconda Mine is closed, but it’s toxic legacy looms over Yerington, NV – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Meanwhile, Signatse Peak Services (SPS), a subsidiary of Quaterra Resources, has already acquired property at a portion of the site and has initiated its own exploratory drilling. 

“A significant portion of the mine site is BLM land and Atlantic Richfield has no interest in re-mining there,” Hadder said. “But that doesn’t matter because another company would be interested in re-mining and there’s clear evidence that they would acquire the land and that ARCO would sell it to them.”

Considering evidence of SPS’s interest in re-mining of the site, environmental impact protocols would have to be followed if the public lands at the mine site remained with BLM. If SPS were to acquire the site from ARCO through a private transaction, however, those protocols could be bypassed.

“If ARCO then transfers the sale of the lands to Signatse Peak Services which it intends to do, according to the Congressional Record, then that is in the public interest and there should be an Environmental Impact Statement related to that,” Hadder said. “If this land were no longer under BLM control, then [SPS’s] plan for re-mining would not go under General Environmental Review and that’s one of the primary reasons why we don’t think [this land disposal] is in the public interest.”

Tailings from the Anaconda mine are used for fill across the region – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Consequently, Hadder is calling on the BLM to include an Environmental Impact Statement, or at the very least an Environmental Assessment document, explaining how this land disposal will serve public and environmental interests as it relates to both the clean-up efforts and prospective re-mining at the Anaconda Mine Site.

“There needs to be a broad environmental review, not only just what re-mining of the site would entail, but analyzing the ways in which the site could be cleaned up to a better extent,” Hadder said.  “The public has a right to know what’s going to happen with public lands and this [proposed] transfer opened the door to an action of re-mining the site without any broader public review. Re-mining could improve the quality of the site and its clean-up, that’s possible, but we have to see how that’s going to happen and I don’t think that we’re going to see that unless there’s an Environmental Impact Statement on re-mining which currently, the BLM is saying that they’re not planning to do.”

Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.

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