Climate change threatens NV Superfund site, watchdog agency warns

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Mercury Amalgamation Pans in the Brunswick Mill. "Millions of pounds of mercury were imported and used in approximately 250 Comstock mills to recover gold and silver." (General Accounting Office photo)
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Mercury Amalgamation Pans in the Brunswick Mill. “Millions of pounds of mercury were imported and used in approximately 250 Comstock mills to recover gold and silver.” (General Accounting Office photo)

WASHINGTON — One of Nevada’s most contaminated sites is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from a government watchdog agency. 

The Carson River Mercury Site, a Superfund site that stretches for about 50 miles through Lyon and Churchill Counties, is in an area that’s vulnerable to the impacts of wildfires and flooding, according to the analysis from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for the U.S. Congress. 

The report assesses how impacts of climate change — including flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea level rise — might impact some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country. The agency looked at 1,336 “active” sites on U.S. EPA’s National Priorities List and 421 “deleted” sites where EPA had determined no further cleanup was needed. 

Nationwide, about 60% of those sites are located in places that might be impacted by the effects of climate change, the report found. GAO looked only at non-federal sites, which means the agency excluded the roughly 10% of Superfund sites owned or operated by the federal government. 

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Apart from limited area cleanups, most of the site “has not undergone cleanup and due to the size and scope of the area impacted, most likely never will,” according to the GAO report.

The Carson River site was the only Nevada site analyzed in the report, and it’s the only site in Nevada that’s currently on EPA’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites. The area is contaminated by mercury used to amalgamate gold and silver in mills in the late 1800s, according to EPA. 

GAO warned in its report that the impacts of climate change could pose risks to public health by spreading pollution from such sites. The agency pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when an unprecedented amount of rainfall dumped on Houston, damaging Superfund sites and releasing toxic materials. 

According to GAO, EPA’s strategic plan from 2018 to 2022 “does not include goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects.” EPA officials interviewed by GAO said that the agency doesn’t always include climate change when it’s assessing risks at Superfund sites. 

Under the Trump administration, the EPA has rolled back many of the Obama administration’s policies to address climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Trump EPA told GAO it believes the Superfund program adequately considers the risks of severe weather events. 

Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday expressing concern over GAO’s findings and over EPA’s response. 

“We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked EPA to answer a series of questions by next month about how it plans to address the risks climate change poses to Superfund sites.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.