Washington, DC — In an abrupt reversal of policy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has returned $700,000 in federal clean-up funds that had been earmarked for cleaning up the Anaconda Mine at Yerington, Nevada, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, a large infusion of money that would have been used in Nevada to address spreading contamination and radiation at the abandoned mine was never spent.
The turn-about reflected the agency’s decision to accept a much more modest clean-up plan being offered by the mine’s owner, the Atlantic Richfield Company (now owned by British Petroleum). As late as the summer of 2004, BLM was urgently requesting supplemental funding from a pool called the Central Hazardous Materials Fund (CHF) because the Yerington mine site “is of great concern, as evidence of the potential risk to human health and the environment from identified contaminants of concern found at the site is mounting,” according to one internal memo.
Just months later, in an email dated November 29, 2004, Robert Kelso, BLM’s lead official for its hazardous waste program in Nevada wrote:
“With ARC’s [Atlantic Richfield] willingness to perform this additional work, we do not expect to need the $500K projected for FY05 nor $205K from the $493 supplemental authorization for FY04, a ‘cost avoidance’ in excess of $700K.”
“Because of political pressures, BLM punted away timely, guaranteed protections for Nevadans,” stated PEER General Counsel Richard Condit. “BLM gave away a bird in the hand for a promise by an oil company that it would finally take some responsibility for the site.”
PEER obtained the documents in preparing for a whistleblower hearing on behalf of BLM’s own former manager overseeing the cleanup of the Anaconda Mine, Earle Dixon. Dixon was terminated in October 2004, shortly before BLM decided to return the money. PEER is assisting Dixon’s lead counsel, Mick Harrison, in prosecuting the claim, which goes to hearing February 7th in Reno.
The foregone federal funds came from a central account made of payments collected by the Department of Interior from polluters of federal lands. Moreover, any expenditures from CHF would ultimately be reimbursed by responsible polluters, such as Atlantic Richfield when it took over the Yerington Mine.
In fact, BLM policy “is to use CHF funding to the maximum extent in order to help alleviate the shortage of funding for study and clean-up of sites contaminated with hazardous substances,” according to a 2000 BLM Instruction Memorandum to all of its state offices.
The Anaconda Mine, an abandoned copper mine, covers more than 3,600 acres where acid run-off and waste rock containing low levels of uranium, thorium and other exposed metals have been disposed in unlined ponds. According to legal filings, Dixon was dismissed for pursuing worker safety, radiation, and pollution violations as well as calling attention to a number of problems that were not addressed because they would drive up remediation costs.
“The upcoming hearing will establish that BLM was not acting in good faith to secure environmental compliance at the site to protect workers and the people of Nevada,” added Mick Harrison. “The agency’s files and witness statements show that shortly after Mr. Dixon secured the necessary federal funds to assess known and potential releases of contaminants from the Yerington Mine, he was fired and all six BLM staff members who supported proper clean-up at the site were also removed from the project.”