Veta Grande Mine clean-up stalled

Ten years after cyanide and heavy metal contamination was found in an abandoned southeast of Gardnerville gold and silver mine, federal landowners are scrambling to find money to finish the cleanup.

The project, is so-far considered a success, but still threatens a half dozen homes in the area, not from cyanide levels which were found in domestic wells at acceptable Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

The problem now is the tailings on two dams haphazardly constructed by the former owner, the Veta Grand Mining Co., which abandoned the site in the 1980s.

The Veta Mine site, also known as the Mammoth Mine, covers about 90 acres of public land in Douglas County. It is located 10 miles south of Gardnerville, one quarter mile east of Highway 395.

The mine was deemed a safety hazard and a source of air and water pollutants such as heavy metals and cyanide, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The gold and silver mine dates back to 1862. Veta Grande Mining Co. did not follow through with a reclamation plan and the BLM took over clean up of the site.

In 1992, the BLM sent out more than 100 letters to local land owners about the Veta Grande Mine site and hosted an open house to recruit residents to participate in the clean-up preparations.

At the time, the BLM already cleaned up metal debris and more than 150 containers of solid and liquid waste substances at the site. Tests, however, show contamination remained.

BLM Geologist Neal Brecheisen, who heads the project, is getting antsy about the future of clean-up efforts at Veta Grande.

"The money comes and goes," he said. "I thought we had a lot of money set aside."

Brecheisen said it has become a classic case of Catch-22. The $300,000 already spent on extensive cleanup is gone. (See BLM progress-to-date box).

Another $1 million appropriated with efforts by Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. went toward the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' hydrology study. The BLM, however, can't decipher the study and needs more information before it can continue the project, Brecheisen said.

Meanwhile, the corps is looking for another year's worth of money to complete its task.

The Catch-22, Brecheisen said, is that the initial $300,000 came from the Department of the Interior's Central Hazardous Material Fund. Because the clean up at has progressed Üæthe cyanide is at acceptable levels Ü the Veta Grande Mine is no longer eligible for those funds.

"Because of our success, we have shot ourselves squarely in the foot," said Brecheisen. "I have been talking like a trooper trying to get funds lined up."

However, the problem now, the tailings, remains serious.

"The big picture is that dams' stabilization is very costly," said Brecheisen. "We don't think the tailings behind the dam are polluted ... But, if we have a wet (winter) season, and if there is a seismic event, those dams could fail. And it scares ... me."

Brecheisen said the dams, illegally built by the mining company, weren't completed. The company, he said, simply dumped dirt and sand out of a truck and laid the tailings without compacting the sediment.

Because the dams were built in steep canyons with homes nearby, Brecheisen said they've been ranked as a "high hazard." To fix the mistake, he said, the BLM faces am expensive cleanup to move a large amount of rocks and dirt -- more than a 100 years worth.

"We just don't want it to become road sand, especially if it floods," he said.

Despite the hydrology study started by the Army corps and contracted to area firm, Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM), Brecheisen said the BLM still has to determine "the nature of the soil, where and if there is contamination, where it is going, and if the worst is yet to come."

Specifically, he said, the BLM has to:

-- Characterize and run samples of the tailings soil to ensure there is no cyanide contamination.

-- Find the bottom of the tailings to determine how much dirt needs to be moved.

-- Complete a structural stability study of the rocks at the tailings.

Brecheisen said the next clean-up efforts, still unfunded, are important to completing the project.

"It will allow us to take water chemistry samples and get a better hand at finding the cyanide plume," he said. "From a scientific standpoint, it is really interesting.

"But we have people living out there, and the BLM wants to be proactive. We are in this together and trying to figure it out."

Four homes in the Veta Grande Mine area are still being provided fresh water to compensate for their tainted wells. Brecheisen said those families want to remain anonymous.


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