CARSON CITY — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is urging Gov. Brian Sandoval to accept a Superfund priority designation sought by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a toxic abandoned copper mine in Lyon County.
"This step is long overdue and one that I believe should have happened over a decade ago," Reid, D-Nev., said in a letter Monday to Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator in San Francisco.
"I urge Gov. Sandoval to agree to this designation."
Blumenfeld this month notified the Republican governor that the EPA intends to proceed with adding the site to its national priority list, The Associated Press reported last week. Blumenfeld set a deadline of Jan. 29 for the state to respond or the agency will assume Nevada agrees with the action.
Late Monday, Sandoval's office said the governor is considering the request.
"Over the last few years there has been both measurable environmental progress and economic investments made at the site," Sandoval said in a statement. "The state must weigh the financial responsibility of managing the site exclusively and the risk associated with labeling the community as a Superfund site indefinitely with any potential health concerns that might exist."
Sandoval said his office has heard from Mason Valley officials, agricultural industry leaders and others expressing concerns about the EPA proposal. He has asked the state Division of Environmental Protection to coordinate with them, assess the proposal and "develop a plan to either work with the EPA or come up with a state-based solution."
It would not be the first Superfund site in Nevada. An 80-mile stretch of the lower Carson River, from near Carson City through Dayton to Lahontan Reservoir, was formally added to the national priority list in 1990 because of mercury, arsenic and lead contamination from mining activity on the historic Comstock in the 1800s. The designation remains in effect, and people are advised not to eat fish from that stretch of river.
Anaconda Copper purchased the Lyon County mine in the early 1940s. It was bought in the 1970s by Atlantic Richfield Co., now a subsidiary of BP. Those operations ceased in 1982.
The site covering about 3,400 acres near Yerington, a rural farming community 65 miles southeast of Reno, was sold a few more times and was last owned by Arimetco, which went bankrupt in 1997 and abandoned the site in 2000, EPA documents show.
In 2013 residents who filed a class action lawsuit won a $19 million settlement on their claims that owners tried to hide contamination from uranium, arsenic and other toxic substances found in drinking water wells.
The EPA says risks to public health and the environment continue and it wants to add the site to the national priority list for cleanup, a designation state and local officials have opposed out of fear the stigma would hurt economic development and the rural economy.
State environmental agencies instead have focused on working with prior owners on a cleanup strategy, but the price tag is hefty. The EPA would cover most of the cleanup costs if the site is added to the Superfund National Priority List.
Reid called the mine a "cesspool full of very toxic substances" and said putting it on the priority list would make available federal funds, expedite cleanup and give the EPA stronger legal leverage "to keep potentially responsible parties … at the negotiating table and working on the property."
"I know this designation will bring attention to the community, but we should stop acting as if denying the designation means the site poses less of a threat to the health and economy of Yerington," Reid wrote.
"This path presents the best possible opportunity for this community to continue to grow its economy into the future," he said.