Skip to main content

New Liaison Position to Stem Communication Shortcomings

CARSON CITY, Nev. - Several years ago with mine closures and environmental
clean-up looming, Nevada tribes and state officials tried to work out an
agreement but weren't quite seeing eye to eye.

Part of the battle stemmed from differing opinions on how the sites should
be treated, but mostly the problem centered on failed communication between
the two groups. It was just too difficult for tribal leaders to reach state
environmental representatives, express their concerns and have their voices
heard. Often calls weren't immediately returned or the issues the tribes
raised weren't taken seriously. But, now, as legendary musician Bob Dylan
once sang, "The times they are a-changin'.'"

Late last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created a liaison
position within the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. Its aim is
to help the tribes and state communicate better, particularly on
environmental issues and mine cleanups. The official announcement of the
$95,000 a year grant, half of which is earmarked for salary, was made at a
ceremony in Carson City in February.

The position went to Tansey Smith, who previously worked on environmental
issues for the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. Smith started on Dec. 1 and
said she has already made strides to heal the fractured relationship some
tribes had with the state. The federal grant for the post must be renewed

"The goal," Smith said, "is to enhance communication between the state and
the tribes. In the past the relationship hasn't been there. We're working
to get everyone on the same page."

As evidence, Smith said in the first days of taking office she asked for a
tribal directory and found out one didn't exist, so she created a complete
listing containing contact names and numbers for officials of
federally-recognized tribes in Nevada.

Smith said her role is to act as a "go-between" for the tribes and the
state, not to take sides, but to set up meetings and make sure both parties
get to the table to discuss the issues important to them.

Gerry Emm, environmental director for the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, was
instrumental in making the position a reality. He is the one credited with
hatching the idea. Emm said he first approached the state in 2000 during
the Olinghouse mine clean-up and found an ally in Allen Biaggi, Nevada's
environmental administrator.

"There was a real need for it," Emm said. "It brings the players together
and gets them to work out a solution that is in everyone's best interest."

Emm's concern at the time was the reclamation of the Olinghouse mine site,
which is about 35 miles northeast of Reno, not far from his tribe's
reservation. The mining company there had declared bankruptcy and left the
site in hazardous condition. A large amount of cyanide solution was
draining from an area where gold was extracted from crushed ore, and the
leak was filling up a reservoir five miles up slope from the Truckee River
and just three miles from the Pyramid Lake Tribal boundary. In this case
mining officials, state regulators, tribal leaders and the bankrupt company
were brought together and through a series of meetings developed a plan to
deal with the environmental threat.

With similar problems facing other tribes, Emm suggested the need for the
liaison position to deal with activities at two other mine clean-ups and
problems related to a rocket fuel plant near Las Vegas that was leaking
percolate and contaminating a water supply used by some tribes. The closing
of the Anaconda Mine outside Yerington and clean-up of the long-abandoned
Rio Tinto Mine in northern Elko County, both copper-producing sites, were
also of major concern to tribal officials.

"We wanted it done right," Emm said of the mine reclamation projects, in
particular Olinghouse. "We didn't want them to take the cheap way out.
Everybody had their own opinions and the state thought the tribes had no
technical knowledge of the situation to have any input, which wasn't true."

It was a little over a decade ago, EPA officials report, that only about 10
percent of tribes had environmental program directors. That number has
grown to close to 90 percent today.

Biaggi said the liaison position makes perfect sense because it serves as a
cooperative partnership between the state and tribes, both of which are
seeking common goals - quality of life, clean air and clean water.

"It's already paying dividends and will continue to well into the future,"
Biaggi said.