Whistleblower's Account Fuels Neighbors' Fears at Polluted Nevada Mine

Peggy Pauly remembers when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer four years ago.

Peggy Pauly remembers when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer four years ago.

"My doctor asked if I'd ever been exposed to radiation and I said, `No,'" she said.

Now, she isn't so sure.

Up until a few weeks ago, Pauly never worried much about the abandoned copper mine next to her family's home in the high desert's irrigated oasis of the Mason Valley, 55 miles southeast of Reno.

"The north end of the mine is my backyard, basically. We built our home here because this was the land we could afford," said Pauly, 55, the wife of a Baptist pastor and mother of daughters ages 8 and 9.

She knew of tests for arsenic, mercury and heavy metal contaminants in the groundwater at the mine covering nearly six square miles. And she noticed last spring when Atlantic Richfield Co., which is primarily responsible for cleanup, started providing free bottled water to neighbors as a precautionary measure.

But she had no reason to doubt Bureau of Land Management officials who said there was no evidence any toxins had gravitated off the mine site itself, or Nevada Division of Environmental Protection officials who said the high levels of uranium in nearby domestic wells most likely were naturally occurring.

"I'm a housewife, not a geologist," Pauly said. "My husband and I have never been pro-Superfund. In my naivete, I thought we were being pretty well informed."

That started to change last month when she was mailed a newsletter from the BLM, NDEP and Environmental Protection Agency describing the "radiological hazards that warrant protection of workers in certain areas of the site" and the need to conduct an aerial survey "to determine where radiation may be both on and off site."

"That was scary to me," Pauly said.

Officials for Atlantic Richfield _ or Arco _ as well as the BLM and NDEP, all deny there's been any attempt to hide potential dangers at the mine.

"We would never suppress data," NDEP spokeswoman Cindy Petterson said. "Maybe we haven't been as good about getting information out as people would have liked."

But Pauly said she learned of a whistleblower complaint filed by the BLM's former project manager at the mine, Earle Dixon. He claims he was fired in October because he drew attention to alleged attempts by state and federal regulators to suppress information about health and safety risks.

Pauly started asking questions, writing letters and making calls. And the more she learned, the madder she got.

"We used to drive through the pink dust and I wonder how much did my kids get exposed to that?" Pauly said. "Maybe we were stupid, I don't know. But we never even thought about maybe there was some sort of a danger."

Local suspicions have swirled for years that Arco and state regulators weren't leveling with residents about potential risks at the mine.

The concerns took on new significance a year ago with the discovery of decades-old documents in archives at the University of Wyoming. One showed tests of monitoring wells at the mine in 1984 with uranium at up to 40 times the legal limits for public drinking water.

New tests the past six months found soil samples at the mine with unusually high levels of radioactivity and concentrations of uranium in mine wells at up to 200 times drinking water standards.

Fears were fueled again last month when the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed the whistleblower complaint on Dixon's behalf with the Labor Department, which is investigating.

BLM officials dispute Dixon's claims. "He was fired because he was not performing his duties appropriately," BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said. "Little progress was being made cleaning up the site."

Dan Cummings, a spokesman for Arco's parent company, British Petroleum, said government regulators are mostly to blame for cleanup delays.

"It took several years for the federal and state authorities to agree to a work plan. Now that we have a work plan, we have made good progress over the past couple of months," he said.

NDEP said work has accelerated since Dixon was fired. Water sampling of neighboring wells continues on a quarterly basis, air monitoring is scheduled to begin by February and additional soil tests are planned soon.

State health workers have "looked into allegations of incidents of disease" in the Yerington area but "have not been able to confirm any clusters," Petterson said.

Misty Stevens was one of about 20 locals who gathered at a meeting Pauly organized last month to compare notes about the mine. In addition to her own aching joints, headaches and insomnia, Stevens worries about her 13-month-old son's respiratory problems.

"I spent $50 on locks for my cabinets and caps for the electrical plugs to keep my boy safe, but he may be living in a contaminated house," she said.

On the Net:

Mine site: http://ndep.nv.gov/yerington/minesite.htm

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: http://www.peer.org