EPA orders ARCO to investigate mine contamination

EPA orders ARCO to investigate mine contamination

With time running out for both The U.S. EPA and Anaconda Mine site managers Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) to sign an administrative order on consent (AOC) for overall site assessment and cleanup, a unilateral administrative order (UAO) was issued today and could serve as the next step in the process.

The AOC is basically an agreement under negotiation between the EPA and ARCO, which would lay out what is needed in regards to mine hazard and cleanup investigation as well as timelines for work. Also within this agreement are penalties associated with not meeting these deadlines.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the mine site stakeholders, Michael Montgomery, of EPA Region IX Superfund Division, said negotiations have been ongoing since June of last year and the pre-established timeline for talks is almost up.

However, a grace period was included within that timeline and they hope to reach an agreement within the next few weeks. If not, the next step would be to enforce a UAO on ARCO. Montgomery explained this would more or less include the same scope of work as would the AOC; however, penalties for not meeting deadlines would have to be pursued within the court at the EPA’s discretion rather than a schedule being in place and agreed upon in advance.

ARCO Director for Government and Public Affairs Cindy Wymore said she was not sure why the order comes at a time when ARCO and the EPA are on the cusp of signing the AOC.

“We were really surprised about it,” she said following Tuesday’s meeting, adding the paperwork is on the EPA’s desk awaiting signature.

Montgomery earlier said the intent is to prevent AOC negotiations from being dragged out. He said the idea is to have the order sent, though it will likely see a delay as to its effective date. This gives ARCO and the EPA time within said grace period to finalize the original AOC.

Specifics of the AOC negotiations have been withheld during talks and Montgomery noted Tuesday’s forum was likely not the best place to discuss the current matters in detail.

Whether by AOC or UAO, the ensuing onsite investigation would lead to an outline for site cleanup. According to a press release from the EPA, ARCO would be required to conduct a remedial investigation and feasibility study for most of the mine site, which is necessary in addressing imminent and substantial threats from hazardous substances at the former mine. The related scope of work for this investigation has already come forward via discussions and coordination with ARCO since last June.

“Beginning the comprehensive remedial investigation and feasibility study for this site is the next step toward a thorough cleanup,” Kathleen Johnson, EPA’s Superfund Branch chief, who is managing this site, said. “After the feasibility study is complete, the EPA, with assistance from Nevada (Division) of Environmental Protection and Bureau of Land Management, will select a final remedy and work toward the ultimate clean up.”

EPA’s information about this site has developed during several years in cooperation with NDEP and BLM. The agencies have conducted or overseen a wide array of sampling activities, interviewed former employees and local representatives, and conducted lengthy documentary reviews.

In 2003, the agencies became aware of significant radiological concerns in soil and groundwater, which eventually led to today’s order. In December 2004, NDEP sent the EPA a letter requesting the agency formally assume the lead role at the site and the EPA accepted.

In 2005 the EPA covered 100 acres of mine tailings to prevent the further spread of hazardous dust from blowing off the site and removed 120 PCB-containing transformers from the site.

Last year, the EPA has worked to realign and/or and improve portions of the “slot ponds” system within the site fluid management system, which will prevent further groundwater contamination and actively begin to reduce the acidic load within the ore heaps. The EPA also constructed a new 4-acre evaporation pond and repaired several other holding ponds to prevent mine chemical drainage from seeping into area groundwater.

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