YERINGTON – Members of the Yerington Paiute Tribe whose well water has been contaminated with high levels of uranium may soon lose their source of free bottled drinking water.
The tribe is about 2 miles north of the abandoned Anaconda Copper Mine, byproducts of the copper-mining process from the mine are responsible for contaminating the surrounding soil and groundwater with a toxic stew of uranium, arsenic and other toxins, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
Uranium— which can increase cancer and damage kidneys— was found in domestic wells being used for drinking water, after testing by the EPA. Since then, Atlantic Richfield Co., owner of the former Anaconda Copper Mine, began providing bottled water for 119 homes dependent on that well water while state and federal agencies evaluated whether the spike in uranium was caused by contamination from the Anaconda site or other sources.
The evaluation, ongoing since 2004, is expected to be completed by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) this year at which point the department will determine whether or not to discontinue bottled water delivery.
In an agreement reached between former Gov. Brian Sandoval and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt the EPA signed over control of the site clean up and preparation for reuse to the state of Nevada.
A meeting NDEP held last week in Yerington to discuss the possibility became emotional.
“People have been relying on that service and now you’re taking it away?” said one woman. “What is the government’s plan to ease that?”
According to the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 23 homes receiving the water don’t have access to a municipal or community water system.
“We need to start thinking about, is it reasonable for Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) to continue to supply bottled water in areas that we don’t see impacts to groundwater?” said Jeff Collins, the chief of the Bureau of Corrective Action within NDEP.
Based on research, monitoring and sampling done over 15 years, Collins says the agency has mapped where the plume of mine contaminated groundwater ends and has determined that all spikes in uranium beyond that boundary is likely due to naturally occurring uranium from minerals in the ground.
“This is a highly mineralized groundwater environment,” Collins said. “That’s the reason they mine copper out of it, there’s a lot of minerals in this basin.”
Mapping the contamination
During the meeting NDEP presented a diagram showing what its staff suspects is the extent of the “mining impacted waters.”
The Yerington Paiute Tribe and a number of other rural residents fall beyond that boundary. Still, as of now, no decision has been made to discontinue bottled water delivery.
Atlantic Richfield officials argue they should not have to provide bottled water to people they say are not affected by mining contamination. The company commissioned a previous study — that was approved by the EPA — which indicated uranium in the groundwater could be naturally occurring or could also be the result of mining or farming.
“The water quality is not the best in the world but that is the challenge in this part of Nevada,” Brian Johnson, a spokesman for Atlantic Richfield, said at the meeting. “Our responsibility is not to everyone in the Mason Valley.”
In a tense moment during the meeting, Ian Bigley, a mining justice organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance, asked Johnson how continuing the modest bottled water program could hurt the billion-dollar company
“How about if you do it?” responded Johnson, which drew ire from the crowd.
“That’s a ridiculous thing to say,” a woman replied. “He’s a community member. Why would you ask him to provide bottled water?”
“Why would you ask us to continue it if it’s not an issue of contamination from the mine site?” said Johnson.
“Because you set a precedent by providing it,” she answered.
“It seems pretty clear to me that Atlantic Richfield wants to get out of the bottled water program,” John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch told the Current. “But until that report has been finalized and has been thoroughly reviewed I think it’s premature to make any decisions regarding any kind of contamination boundary.”
Billions of gallons of water contaminated
In a 2017 groundwater remediation investigation draft report, it was estimated that the total volume of the contaminated groundwater plume is 385,217 acre-feet — that’s hundreds of billions of gallons of water. It would take an estimated 285 years of pumping at 2,500 gallons per minute to clean the site.
The tribe argues that there aren’t enough monitoring wells on the Yerington Paiute Reservation to accurately determine the presence of contamination in the groundwater. Currently, 12 groundwater monitoring wells and three domestic wells are sampled on the 1,653-acre reservation.
Several people raised concerns about the proximity of their homes to the defined boundary line and were skeptical their water was safe to drink.
“That’s another question, if there are people that are close to the boundary how solid is that boundary?” Hadder said. “If they’re just outside the boundary, well, what if your analysis is wrong by just a little bit and (the) boundary goes further than you think?
“They’re going to have to negotiate with people.”
Emotions rose throughout the meeting and many residents left unconvinced.
“We are opening ourselves up today because we have to start early and often we think. We are proactively getting in front of this,” Collins said.