Washoe Tribe successful in EPA Superfund listing

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The 1,500 member Washoe Tribe has successfully persuaded the EPA to list an abandoned sulfur mine?near the California/ Nevada border as a Superfund site.

The mine has been responsible for polluting Leviathan Creek?which flows through Washoe tribal lands) whose waters have run orange for 50 years as a result of toxic metal runoff. Superfund is part of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listing that makes funds and governmental resources available for ecological cleanup.

At issue is the Leviathan sulfur mine, which sits at about 7,000 feet in elevation near the Lake Tahoe basin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Leviathan Creek flows near the mine where it picks up an acidic blend of heavy metals before flowing off the east side of the Sierras through the heart of Washoe lands. The creek eventually drains into the Carson River system where tribal members say that they have found evidence of environmental degradation.

Washoe tribal attorney Tim Seward says that the Washoe had first petitioned the EPA in 1996. The Leviathan site was then proposed for Superfund listing last February. This was followed by a long comment period when the tribe and their supporters could express all of their concerns. Some of these supporters include the state of Nevada, Douglas County (Nevada), Alpine County (California) and the Upper Carson River Conservation District which - along with the Washoe - comprise a coalition called the Leviathan Mine Council.

"They're (the Washoe) are feeling the negative effects of the drainage out of the mine every day," Seward says. "That damage is still occurring and the tribe felt something had to be done."

The move by the Washoes came after nearly 50 years of efforts by the state of California to clean up the site. Leviathan was operated by Anaconda Co. and has since been bought by Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO). ARCO cut a deal with the state of California in the 1980s that absolved it from financial responsibility for site cleanup. Kevin Mayer, the EPA project manager for the project, said the deal does not include federal entities and ARCO will have to pay for "most of the cleanup."

Since the creek had been polluted for nearly half a century, Mayer explains the reasons for delay in cleaning it up. "You have to look first at the way things were done in the 1950s and 1960s. No one was really challenging environmentally extracting businesses. When the mine was no longer profitable Anaconda sold the land. Just walked away and didn't claim responsibility."

Mayer says the state attempted to clean up the area in the 1980s but was largely unsuccessful. "There was a designed plan to take care of the problem. It was a well-executed project but the problem was in the design, it just wasn't good enough."

Mayer says that after the Washoe?s petition, ARCO made an agreement with the EPA to try and prevent a Superfund listing. "They were unsuccessful, so we decided to go ahead with the process."

That process, Mayer said, will take "a long time, maybe several years" to remedy. "The Washoes' input is extremely valuable to us. For example, we don't always look at specific plants and animals when we do a cleanup. We are trying to establish an effective way to communicate with the tribe, without them revealing anything sacred just what needs to be looked at in terms of plants or animals that may be affected."

Washoe Chairman Brian Wallace thinks the EPA has done a good job working with his tribe. "The EPA should be given a fair amount of credit for responding to our needs and being sensitive to our cultural priorities."

However, Wallace believes much work still needs to be done. "We're still characterizing the scope of the damage of hazardous material release from the Leviathan site. We're in a process of identifying what environmental problems there are associated with it."

Questioned as to the duration of the project, Wallace says there is no way to know at this point. "There's no definition on the size of the problem. We're just in the planning stage."

Wallace says the tribe is working with the EPA on several fields. One of the Washoes' primary responsibilities is to identify flora and fauna used for tribal pharmacology and food that may be affected by poisonous runoff from the mine.

He adds a bit chillingly, "There may not be the technology available to totally clean this all up."

Washoe elder Eleanore Smokey says that willow roots found down on the Carson River - important for Washoe basket weaving - are not as pliant as they should be. She believes this is because of environmental damage.

Smokey said the source of the pollution is the worst of the problem. "My son is an environmentalist and he says that when he was up near the mine site you couldn't hear any natural sounds. Nothing, not even a cricket. It was as if the whole earth had gone silent."

Smokey says she remembers the former beauty of the Leviathan site and is saddened to see its current state. "When I was first married, my husband used to take me up there to go fishing. My children used to play in the creek. A few weeks ago we took some children up there, and while we're not sure this (the site) is the reason, some of the children got sick after we were there."