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Know the West

Former employees blow the whistle on Nevada mine

Is the state shirking its duty to enforce mining regulations?


In Nevada, a mammoth multinational mining company is polluting the air and water, and state regulators are doing little to stop it, according to former mine employees and mining watchdogs. Two whistleblowers are suing Newmont Mining Corporation — the largest gold producer in the world — for firing them after they repeatedly told their supervisors that the mine was violating state and federal environmental laws.

Sandra Ainsworth and Rebecca Sawyer, former environmental specialists at Newmont, say in order to save money, mine managers ignored their complaints about chemical leaks into the Humboldt River, groundwater contamination, air pollution and other problems at the Lone Tree mine near Winnemucca.

“The company wants to pay lip service to compliance with environmental regulations and permits,” says Henry Egghart, the whistleblowers’ attorney. “But when it comes to the bottom line, they want to do as little as they can get away with.”

Newmont says Ainsworth and Sawyer were laid off in April 2002 because of “restructuring” after a corporate merger. One week after Ainsworth lost her job, Newmont also fired her husband, a geologist, for forwarding a company e-mail to her. Newmont spokesman Lou Schack says Jack Ainsworth was terminated “for violating company policy with regard to handling internal information.” But Jack Ainsworth, who has joined his wife’s lawsuit, charges that he was terminated because of his connection with her, and to intimidate other employees.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection began investigating the whistleblowers’ complaints last fall, but was unable to corroborate many of the claims, because Newmont initially blocked investigators from talking to mine employees. After two months of stonewalling, the state attorney general intervened, but the division “lost the element of surprise, which is oftentimes critical in an investigation,” according to its report. The state did verify a few permit violations, including the illegal release of chemicals into the Humboldt River. Deputy Administrator Leo Drozdoff says the Division of Environmental Protection is now working with Newmont to correct the water pollution problem. In June, the agency slapped Newmont with a $5,000 fine and an order to comply with the Clean Water Act, or face additional fines of up to $27,000 a day.

But the $5,000 fine — the minimum allowed by law — “is not even a tap on the wrist,” says Tom Myers, director of Great Basin Mine Watch in Reno. The nonprofit watchdog group is challenging the Lone Tree mine’s water-pollution control permit in court. The state renewed the permit in November 2002, despite its ongoing investigation into the whistleblowers’ complaints. Dave Gaskin, supervisor of the Bureau of Mining Regulations at the division, says, “We don’t use renewal as an enforcement device.”

The permit renewal authorized an expansion of the mine’s tailings impoundment, which holds waste rock containing acids and heavy metals, even though the impoundment is leaking acidic material in violation of the permit. “Everything suggests that there are some serious problems at Lone Tree that the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection is not addressing adequately,” says Nicole Rinke, Great Basin Mine Watch’s attorney. “I think they have been taking a very laissez-faire approach to regulating.”

The writer is a High Country News intern.

- Nevada Division of Environmental Protection http://ndep.nv.gov, 775-687-4670
- Tom Myers, Great Basin Mine Watch 775-348-1986 Henry Egghart 775-329-2705
- Lou Schack, Newmont Mining Corporation 775-778-4404