Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Fired BLM employee sues: Old mine a risk

Author:

YERINGTON, Nev. - A recently-fired Bureau of Land Management (BLM) worker
is claiming that he was wrongfully terminated for blowing the whistle on
foot dragging and inadequate testing by his and other agencies regarding
the clean up of a contaminated mine site and has filed a lawsuit against
the BLM.

At issue is a now defunct copper mine located in central western Nevada
near the Yerington Paiute Reservation. The former employee, Earl Dixon, an
Eastern Cherokee, claims the mine may be responsible for numerous
environmental hazards potentially affecting the Yerington Paiute Tribe.

The Yerington mine is owned by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and
came as part of a package of holdings when ARCO bought the Anaconda Mine
Company of Butte, Mont. in 1977. That deal has been derided in some
quarters as one of the worst business deals of the 20th century and has
cost ARCO millions in cleanup of various Anaconda sites.

In fact, officials at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
(NDEP) claim that ARCO has spent an estimated $1 million just on testing at
the Yerington site.

Calls to ARCO were not returned by press time.

Dixon claimed that the fiscally-challenging role assumed by ARCO has led to
foot dragging on an environmental cleanup of the site and his proactive
role in doing a thorough job led to his ouster. Additionally Dixon cited
the long-standing ties of the mining industry to Nevada state government.
Mining makes up approximately 10 percent of Nevada's economy and mining
interests are regular donors to state politicians.

Despite the large sum already spent by ARCO for site environmental testing,
Dixon contends that it is not enough and ARCO-funded testing has not
provided definitive results as to whether water containing radioactive
materials has permeated the well water used by local residents including
the Yerington Paiute Tribe.

One thing that all parties agree on is that the mine site is polluted, but
it is not listed as a Superfund site. Jim Sickles, who works with the San
Francisco regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said
the reason for this is that locals were concerned that their property
values would plummet with a Superfund listing. However, Sickles said that
clean up of the site has a Superfund-type governing apparatus and it is a
Superfund site in everything but name.

What resulted from this type of apparatus was a Memorandum of Understanding
signed in 2002 in which the BLM, the EPA, the NDEP and ARCO would
coordinate clean-up activities at the mine site. Dixon was hired in October
2003 as the project manager at the BLM to, as he said it, "to oversee what
ARCO is doing in regard to testing."

There is oddly enough some dispute over who is the lead agency on the
project. Both Sickles and Dixon claim it is the NDEP, who denies this and
claims that all participating agencies have an equal part.

"NDEP is not the lead agency, as far as the decisions as to what to clean
up and how to do it. All three agencies have to do this cooperatively,"
said NDEP Public Information Officer Cindy Petterson.

Petterson is contradicted by the NDEP's own Web site. The fourth page of a
29-page memo at http://ndep.nv.gov/yerington/minesite.htm shows that NDEP
was named the lead agency on March 28, 2002.

However, regardless of which agency has the lead, Dixon clashed with the
NDEP over testing for radiation levels in the domestic water supply.

Sickles confirms that uranium has been found in the domestic water supply
north of the site and said that the NDEP has fought the EPA over further
testing. Since uranium is naturally occurring, Sickles concedes it is
possible that its presence is a natural occurrence, however, he said that
only further testing would determine if that is the case.

"They're [the state of Nevada] saying that it's natural and we [EPA] are
saying that we don't know," claimed Sickles.

Yerington functioned as a copper mine and the process through which copper
is extracted from rock produces uranium, among other materials, as a
byproduct. The excess materials are stored in holding ponds and it is in
these ponds that Dixon said the problem literally lies.

Since these ponds do not have lining to prevent them from seeping into the
ground it is possible that the contaminated water can enter the domestic
water supply if it is not leached out in the ground before it reaches an
underground aquifer.

Another potential hazard is air contamination. Since the majority of Nevada
is a dry desert, the unlined ponds tend to dry up and Dixon pointed out the
potential hazard of contaminated dust from these ponds being carried by
Nevada's nearly ubiquitous summer winds to nearby crops and communities.

Dixon listed what he believes are several key elements that were not being
addressed by NDEP and ARCO in testing the area. Included among these are
air tests to see if radioactive material has escaped the pond sites on the
summer winds and the number of test samples being taken from the area. He
claims that domestic well sites were not being properly investigated and
that only intermediate sites were being tested that lie between the mine
site and the domestic wells.

"All I wanted to do was make sure that federal laws regarding drinking
water standards were being followed," Dixon said.

Petterson claimed testing has been thorough and that a scientific process
has to be followed in which intermediate wells are tested to determine if
there is a pattern of seepage. Dixon, however, pointed out that it is the
domestic wells that should have first testing priority since they are the
ones actually used by the public.

It was because of his insistence that these more thorough tests be done
that Dixon claims he was branded a nuisance to the state of Nevada and
dismissed by the BLM in October of this year.

Jo Simpson, the public information officer at the BLM's Carson City offices
said Dixon was not fired because of his insistence on more rigorous
testing.

"We were just not making good progress on the site [under Dixon]," Simpson
said.

Though she does not mention Dixon by name, Petterson also alluded to
Dixon's ouster by saying that the project was "bottlenecked" at Dixon's BLM
office.

Simpson claimed that progress has sped up "considerably" in the few months
since Dixon left and that further testing was under way, including air
testing that will begin in January.

Simpson referred further questions regarding testing specifics to Craig
Smith who has been acting as the de facto project manager in the case since
Dixon's ouster though Simpson says that there are no plans to hire a
replacement for Dixon's position. Perhaps not ironically, the specific
points of progress listed by Smith on the site in the last month is a
nearly identical list of specific testing points Dixon said he had
advocated over the proceeding several months.

When questioned as to why he thought the BLM was enacting more rigorous
measures since his departure, Dixon claimed that his going public in the
form of a lawsuit with his problems at the BLM left the agency little
choice since they were "now under a microscope."

Yerington Paiute Chairman Wayne Garcia sings Dixon's praises when asked
about his work with the tribe. He said Dixon worked well with the tribe and
local community and had a keen interest in the health and safety of the
community.

Garcia also credits Dixon with the increased test activity at the mine site
in the past month.

"We agree that efforts have been stepped up in the last month, and I
believe that this is a direct result of Mr. Dixon's effort," Garcia said.

Garcia is also critical of the work done by NDEP and has recently worked
with the city of Yerington and Lyon County, where Yerington sits, to urge
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn to make the EPA the lead agency in the cleanup.

Sickles said it is possible that the EPA could take over the project even
without Gov. Guinn's approval. But such a move would be dicey and
counterproductive since such a move would be potentially seen as hostile by
the NDEP and the potential for bad feelings might rile some at the state
agency making cleanup work more difficult.

Though Sickles could not comment specifically on Dixon's case since his
name appears in the lawsuit, he credits Dixon for doing a thorough and
competent job when they worked together on the project.

Dixon's complaint was filed with the Department of Labor who has 30 days
from Nov. 3 to do an investigation and render some type of decision.

The Yerington Paiute are not the only tribe that has had problems with an
ARCO-owned Anaconda mine site. In 2000 the Washoe tribe was successful in
their bid to receive a Superfund listing for a mine site that rendered
lifeless a creek that runs through their reservation.