Desert Lands Contaminated by Toxic Spills
A stretch of the Mojave Desert, encompassing part of California’s newest national park, is contaminated with radioactive toxic waste that repeatedly spilled last summer from a ruptured pipeline at the Mountain Pass Mine, according to federal and state authorities.
About 300,000 gallons of waste from seven separate spills are contaminating protected portions of the desert deemed critical to desert tortoises, an endangered species in severe decline in the Mojave, according to federal and state officials.
National Park Service officials also fear that visitors to the new Mojave National Preserve and adjacent federal lands, as well as nearby residents, may be placed at increased risk of exposure to chemicals that may cause cancer and other health hazards.
On Monday, state officials at a regional water board issued a cleanup and abatement order to the mine owner, Unocal subsidiary Molycorp, ordering the cleanup to begin by May 15 and end by July 31.
Molycorp is under investigation by a San Bernardino County environmental crimes task force and the state Department of Fish and Game for its handling and reporting of the spills. Sources say the county will recommend that felony charges against the company be brought before a grand jury.
Molycorp offered in August to clean up the waste. In response, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns most of the contaminated land, told the company to remove it by February. But it remains there because the company and the federal agency have been unable over the last eight months to agree on the details and extent of the cleanup.
The Mountain Pass Mine, 15 miles southwest of the California-Nevada border, excavates rare earth metals called lanthanides, which are used in an array of products, including color televisions, glassware, camera filters and catalytic converters.
The spillage from the pipeline contains lead in toxic concentrations as well as radioactive uranium, barium, thorium and radium above background levels, according to a report by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, an arm of the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Holly Bundock, a National Park Service spokeswoman, called the spills “huge” and “horrible,” particularly because they have polluted protected national lands.
“Our hazardous-materials people have been going in there, and they are appalled at what they’ve seen,” she said.
Molycorp officials told The Times on Wednesday that they are working out the cleanup details with the federal landowners and are confident they can meet the May and July deadlines.
“We do have a concern about the materials, primarily from the standpoint of having them out in the environment,” said Bill Almas, Molycorp’s manager of environmental affairs. “We have no reason to suspect a health risk to humans, but we would like to remove them and prevent them from migrating any further.”
The buried pipeline--15 miles long and 8 inches in diameter--carries waste water from the mine to Ivanpah Dry Lake beneath federal lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, including the Mojave preserve created by Congress in 1994.
The criminal probe and word of the spills surface as Molycorp has proposed a major expansion of the mine’s open pit and rock deposits and replacement of its pipeline.
The sprawling mine and mill complex, which began producing lanthanides in the 1950s, encompasses 900 acres and ranks among California’s largest sources of hazardous waste. It has had past problems with spills and handling of wastes, and was fined $100,000 by the state in 1994.
The seven spills occurred between July 24 and Aug. 3 during maintenance that involved running foam plugs and large volumes of water through the pipeline to remove a buildup of crusty material, called pipe scale.
Because of a buildup of pressure, the pipeline broke seven times, spraying the water and hazardous materials into the soil and leaving a white crystalline scale on desert vegetation, said Al Stein, the Bureau of Land Management’s assistant district manager for lands and mines. Molycorp removed some of the scale immediately but left the residue that had spilled further from the pipeline.
Stein said the contamination levels are not extremely high, but high enough to require special handling and disposal at dumps for toxic and radioactive wastes.
One federal document says Molycorp reported that the pipe scale contains radioactivity as much as 100 times background levels--3,000 to 4,000 picocuries per gram.
The worst three ruptures polluted Bureau of Land Management property in an area 200 yards long and 50 yards wide, about four miles from the Mojave National Preserve, Stein said. Waste also spilled at Ivanpah Dry Lake on Molycorp property.
A smaller spill contaminated the eastern entrance of the new, 1.4-million acre park, which last year was visited by 67,000 people.
“This area is the gateway to the park from the east, so we’re concerned about impacts and environmental consequences to wildlife, especially the desert tortoise. We’re also concerned about the potential impacts on park visitors from airborne substances that evaporate and blow off the Ivanpah Dry Lake site,” said Tony Gross, the preserve’s environmental compliance officer. “And we’re certainly concerned about the health and welfare of our neighbors who reside in the boundaries of the park.”
Reports on the degree of contamination are insufficient at this point “to say one way or the other” whether residents and visitors face a significant risk, Gross said. High levels of lead can cause neurological damage, and radiation can increase the risk of leukemia and cancer.
Gross said the toxic and radioactive materials could slowly spread to drinking-water wells serving the Mojave park and two casinos and a golf course in Stateline, Nev.
Bureau of Land Management officials say there is no immediate health threat to people or wildlife, but they worry the waste could be accumulating in the bodies of animals, especially tortoises that burrow in the area. Metals such as lead can build up to toxic loads in wildlife, causing tumors, disease or reproductive problems.
“This is a low-toxic material, it’s not acutely hazardous or toxic. But we have a lot of unanswered questions about it,” said John Key, the bureau’s hazardous-materials specialist for the California desert.
Two Mojave tortoises have been found to contain radiation and metals, but the source is unknown, U.S. Geological Survey biologists say. Bighorn sheep, rodents and birds also inhabit the area.
The worst spillage is behind a locked gate on bureau property, although Stein said people could come in contact with it fairly easily. A school and Caltrans employee housing sit next to the mine, nine miles from that site.
Melissa Allain, Molycorp’s senior assistant counsel, said the company has “no reason to think it is posing a significant risk to the tortoises or visitors or residents.”
Molycorp officials said they were ready and willing within three weeks of the spills to mount an extensive cleanup, including hand excavation to reduce ecological damage and volume of waste needing disposal. But they said the bureau attached 15 pages of conditions, some concerning general operation of the mine, that they considered inappropriate and excessive.
Allain and Almas said they hoped the state’s order, by setting a deadline, would speed up the negotiations with several federal and state agencies.
But Stein of the Bureau of Land Management said the project requires “special care” and the company’s cleanup plan is insufficient.
“The company agreed to clean it up,” Stein said. “It’s a matter of how they’re going to do it that’s at issue.”