Environmental Issues Facing Nevada, Present and Future
Op-Ed submitted to the Reno Gazette-Journal
Toxic waste is hard to contain, harder still to remove. The Yerington Paiute Tribe is drinking solely bottled water, and has been since 2004. A stew of mining byproducts, like arsenic and uranium, leach toxic plumes into their groundwater.
In February of this year, the State of Nevada signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) putting the state on the hook for oversight and management of BP as they work to clean up this Yerington Anaconda Superfund Site, only 80 miles from Reno. This clean up is anticipated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
While the state has expertise in mine reclamation, this site holds many more complications than usual. First and most important, one of the risk driver contaminants at the site is uranium. It’s in the groundwater, in the soil, and found in the dust blowing from the site. I probably don’t need to tell you that uranium is a bad thing — a radioactive cancer-causing pollutant. It has been concentrated and spread throughout the valley as a result of the mine site. This is not like those “regular” mine site contaminants found at other Superfund-level cleanup sites in our state. It has very different risk and exposure implications.
Second, this site is located on mostly federal land. Over half of the mine site footprint is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and the contamination extends onto tribal land, including a section of the Walker River. This complicates the idea that the site can be managed through state oversight. The state only has jurisdiction over the private land portions of the contamination, not public lands, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). That act, by the way, was passed in 1980 because of some terrible hazardous waste practices and management that was allowed to take place in the 1970s. There are significant issues that restrict state authority on Tribal Trust land.
Finally, the site is not contained. Contaminated material from the site has been observed as far from the site as Walker Lake, resulting from contaminated surface water runoff from the site that came through the Yerington Paiute Tribe reservation into the Walker River and on to Walker Lake. Now we are talking about contested navigable waters (hello, Army Corps of Engineers) and endangered species, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (welcome to the party, U.S. Fish and Wildlife), being part of the equation.
This project is so much more than capping a mine and dealing with a pit lake, things that we do have expertise in at the state level. The state taking on oversight was pushed by the Trump Administration, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like anyone at the state understood how bad of an idea it was, at least enough to say “no.” Developers and the state government are afraid of the Superfund designation. There’s also an angle of public land grab and giveaway to a foreign corporation, BP, who the state now has to manage and hold responsible for cleanup. This corporation is notorious for shirking responsibility, litigating endlessly and expensively, and leaving communities high and dry with some good PR and a lasting environmental issue.
We are not equipped, at the state level, to handle this. But, while we should try, it is unlikely we can give it back to the federal government. So now we must make the best we can of it, by bringing more experts on board and, hopefully, by electing state lawmakers who understand the issue, will pay attention, and help hold BP accountable. Perhaps more importantly, we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again in the future.
That brings me to my final point: unless we are vigilant, this will happen again. The EPA and Trump Administration will try to pass the buck; we can’t let them. They are also dismantling environmental oversight and protections that could prevent future environmental devastation. It just takes one bad corporate actor to go unmonitored, and this happens again.
There’s a way to grow that is sustainable. Mining can be done well, and is necessary for the raw materials to make things like the batteries and solar panels we need to move away from fossil fuels. These are mostly skilled, organized labor jobs that pay good, middle-class wages. But we cannot let industry run amuck, and police themselves; we have living examples of how bad that can be.
What monitoring and oversight should and will the state need to take on? That remains to be seen. Some of what the Trump Administration and EPA is doing is just for show, with little practical impact, but we must be vigilant and pick up any slack if and when they decide to dismantle regulations that do make a real difference. It is more important than ever that our elected officials have an understanding of the science and the issues of environmental protection in order to keep us safe.