EPA: Old mine polluting area

YERINGTON, Nev. —Peggy Pauly lives in a robin-egg blue, two-story house not far from acres of onion fields that make the northern Nevada air smell sweet at harvest time.

But she can look through the window from her kitchen table, just past her backyard with its swingset and pet llama, and see an ominous sign on a neighboring fence: ''Danger: Uranium Mine.''

For almost a decade, people who make their homes in this rural community in the Mason Valley 65 miles southeast of Reno have blamed that enormous abandoned mine for the high levels of uranium in their water wells.

They say they have been met by a stone wall from state regulators, local politicians and the huge oil company that inherited the toxic site — British Petroleum. Those interests have insisted uranium naturally occurs in the region's soil and there's no way to prove that a half-century of processing metals at the former Anaconda pit mine is responsible for the contamination.

That has changed. A new wave of testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that 79 percent of the wells tested north of the World War II-era copper mine have dangerous levels of uranium or arsenic or both that make the water unsafe to drink.

And, more important to the neighbors, the source of the pollution is a groundwater plume that has slowly migrated from the 6-square-mile mine site.

The new samples likely never would have been taken if not for a whistleblower, a minister's wife, a tribal consultant and some stubborn government scientists who finally helped crack the toxic mystery that has plagued this rural mining and farming community for decades.

' 'They have completely ruined the groundwater out here,'' said Pauly, the wife of a local minister and mother of two girls, who organized a community action group five years to seek the truth about the pollution.

' 'Prior to this, we didn't really have an understanding of where water was moving,'' said Steve Acree, a highly regarded hydrogeologist for the EPA in Oklahoma, who was brought in to examine the test results. ''My interpretation at this stage of the process is yes, you now have evidence of mine-impacted groundwater.''

The tests found levels of uranium more than 10 times the legal drinking water standard in one monitoring well a half-mile north of the mine. Though the health effects of specific levels are not well understood, the EPA says long-term exposure to high levels of uranium in drinking water may cause cancer and damage kidneys.

' 'It was speculation, because I didn't have the dramatic evidence they have now," said Earle Dixon, the site's former project manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "You just had all the symptoms,'' he said from New Mexico, where he is now a state geologist.

' 'The way the state has been telling the story and BP and Lyon County... is this is mostly all natural. Well, no it's not,'' he said.