Understanding Anaconda

As we look back in time – all the way back to the 1800s – we can see how Nevada’s mineral-rich environment has made the “Silver State” a historic mining marvel. From gold and silver, to copper and precious metals, and more, mining has deep roots in Nevada, and has helped shape our State’s iconic history, economy, and unique sense of place.

While mining continues to be a backbone industry in Nevada, prior to 1991, mining wasn’t subject to the advanced environmental regulations and protections, including financial bonding requirements to ensure site restoration, that we have in place today. In Nevada, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) Abandoned Mine Lands Program identifies, oversees clean up, and rehabilitates these pre-regulatory “legacy mines” to help restore our natural environment and protect public health. The historic Anaconda Copper Mine (Anaconda Site), located near Yerington, Nevada, is a hallmark example of an abandoned legacy mine in need of modern-day remediation.

Anaconda: A clear path forward

The intricate storyline of the historic Anaconda Site spans many years of changing ownership, community negotiation, environmental investigation, and intergovernmental collaboration. When the most recent owner, Arimetco, abandoned the site in 1999, NDEP stepped in and managed site fluids to prevent potential releases. Even though site conditions were stabilized for more than a decade, questions still lingered. . . would the Anaconda Site ever be cleaned up? If so, when and how, and, who would oversee and fund the cleanup? With an unwavering determination to put cleanup efforts in motion, NDEP, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and other partners worked to identify the best and most effective course of action.  Central to this discussion was whether to have the site listed on the EPA’s National Priority List of Superfund sites to make the site eligible for federal funding or pursue a deal with a prior owner of the Anaconda Site to privately finance clean-up.  Given that funding from EPA’s Superfund program could take many years to materialize, the NDEP began evaluating an alternative funding option. 

In February 2018, the Anaconda resolution came to fruition, in the form of a “Deferral Agreement” – a special agreement under the EPA’s Superfund Program that would allow for private financing of the clean-up on a predictable and transparent timeline while maintaining all State and Federal level clean-up standards... This landmark agreement deferred the Anaconda Mine from the EPA Superfund National Priorities List, providing that NDEP directly oversee cleanup activities that achieve equivalent protection to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund. Funding for Phase 1 of the cleanup, which includes the abandoned Arimetco heap leach pads and associated ponds, is being provided by the Atlantic Richfield Company, with a 10% reimbursement from the NDEP.  The 10% reimbursement is equivalent to how this phase of the cleanup would have been funded by the State under a federal lead.

The decision to defer the Anaconda Site from EPA Superfund listing was made for numerous reasons, including the following:

Location, location, location. Because NDEP is a Nevada-based agency, the Anaconda cleanup remains top-of-mind, and closer to our hands. NDEP has successfully managed numerous large-scale cleanups throughout Nevada, and has the necessary personnel, expertise, resources, and enforcement authority to compel all necessary work – right here in Nevada. For years, EPA has relied on NDEP to oversee on-the-ground work at other sites in Nevada, including the Carson River Mercury Superfund Site and the Rio Tinto Copper Mine Site.

Faster cleanup. The EPA Superfund Program has numerous competing priorities nationwide, and as such, there was no established timeline or guaranteed funding for the Anaconda cleanup prior to the deferral agreement. There had been universal frustration with the previous pace of work at the Site and the lack of a meaningful schedule. NDEP will oversee the cleanup to EPA-equivalent standards, and because Nevada-based projects are NDEP’s sole priority, NDEP is able to launch cleanup efforts more timely and effectively.

Nevada-specific expertise. NDEP has grown tremendously over the years, and today NDEP is comprised of more than 260 staff and 11 specialized bureaus statewide. NDEP is uniquely equipped to oversee cleanup of Anaconda, backed by its robust scientific knowledgebase and a proven track record of managing large-scale environmental cleanups throughout Nevada. Examples of major cleanups include the significant reduction of perchlorate into Lake Mead and the Colorado River from the former Tronox/Kerr McGee Site, redevelopment of 2,200 acres of the former BMI Complex Common areas near Henderson into residential properties, restoration of the Rio Tinto Copper Mine Site near Mountain City, restoration of petroleum contaminated groundwater at the Helm’s gravel pit (now the Sparks Marina), and numerous others. Additionally, NDEP can draw upon the extensive mine reclamation expertise of its Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation, where successful large-scale mine reclamation and bonding is part of the work we do every day.

Guaranteed private funding, at no cost to Nevada taxpayers. Under deferral, the heap leach pads and associated ponds in the north and central portions of the Anaconda Site, Phase 1, have an approved remedy for cleanup and a dedicated funding source. Prior to the Deferral Agreement, there was no identified funding or predicted availability of funds through the EPA Superfund National Priorities List. Securing the Atlantic Richfield Company as a private funding source for the first phase is a big step towards getting the Anaconda Site cleaned up.

The future is bright for the Anaconda Site

Progress on Phase 1 of the Anaconda Site cleanup is already well underway! A few examples of milestones and key highlights up to this point include:

Community Involvement and Participation Plan and the Public Comment Process – In May 2018, NDEP offered area residents the opportunity to provide input on the Anaconda Community Involvement and Participation Plan (CIPP). In July 2018, NDEP revised and finalized the CIPP after a review of the public comments. NDEP posted the final CIPP online for public viewing at https://ndep.nv.gov/land/abandoned-mine-lands/anaconda-home/anaconda-community-involvement-participation-plan. The CIPP will be reviewed annually and modified or updated as needed. To learn more about the public comment process, and how it applies to the Anaconda Site cleanup, please visit https://ndep.nv.gov/land/abandoned-mine-lands/anaconda-home/anaconda-site-docs.

Plume Stability and Environmental Studies – Comprehensive environmental studies are in the works to help guide key cleanup decisions. For example, one of the key environmental studies currently underway is the “plume stability study,” which will provide information on whether the plume is stable or expanding, shrinking, or fluctuating with groundwater seasonal effects.

Drinking Water and Bottled Water Delivery Program – The groundwater aquifers in Mason Valley have been studied as part of a comprehensive groundwater investigation for approximately 10 years.  The data collected and analyzed by EPA and NDEP during that time is being assembled into a final groundwater report that is due in March 2019.   Launched in 2004 as a precautionary measure, the bottled water delivery service program has continued for approximately 14 years.  Bottled water delivery service will continue for those folks that have domestic wells and have not elected to or do not have the option to connect to the treated municipal water distribution system until a final decision is made regarding the groundwater plume stability. The need for bottled water service can be eliminated if property owners connect to a municipal water source or groundwater investigations determine domestic wells are not impacted and are not in jeopardy of being impacted. Prior to making any decisions about changing bottled water delivery, NDEP will first develop a fact sheet that provides the rationale for making the change, based on the findings from technical documents. NDEP views this type of a change to be a major milestone and decision point associated with the site cleanup evolution and will schedule a public meeting to discuss this decision further.

Continuing Communications & Outreach – To help foster full transparency and open communication, NDEP has revamped the Anaconda website, which provides the latest updates, progress reports, timelines, meeting calendars, key documents, and other outreach. NDEP also recently implemented a public domain data sharing site (SharePoint), making current and historic documents and data readily available. The Lyon County Library acts as the local document repository and maintains electronic copies of all documents. The library has public computers available for viewing these documents.  The library is located at 20 Nevin Way in Yerington.

All necessary design studies and planning for the first phase of the Anaconda Site cleanup are underway.  Atlantic Richfield crews, with NDEP oversight and approval, are scheduled to commence on-the-ground cleanup activities by the end of 2019.  The north and central portions of the Anaconda Site containing heap leach pads and associated ponds are slated to be complete by 2024, with necessary operation, maintenance, and monitoring activities continuing thereafter.

As progress continues at the Anaconda Site, NDEP remains committed to following an investigation and risk assessment process equivalent to CERCLA, and implementing CERCLA-protective remedies to ensure our land, air, and water resources are healthy, clean and safe. NDEP, together with key stakeholders, looks forward to cleaning up the Anaconda Site quickly, enhancing the area’s natural environment, and promoting quality of life in the surrounding communities.

Coming soon…Look for more information about the Anaconda Site cleanup progress – including the final planning stages, environmental studies, remedial design process, key milestones, and more – in upcoming blog articles.