Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Conscientious Objectors."
Earle Dixon was in for a surprise this fall, when he showed up for a meeting at his office in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City Field Office. Over the previous year, Dixon had overseen the cleanup of the Yerington Mine at the edge of the dusty town of Yerington in western Nevada, where the Anaconda Copper Co. had mined and processed copper ore for more than 25 years. Cleanup of the 3,600-acre site, which includes metal-contaminated mine tailings, radioactive evaporation ponds and a plume of contaminated groundwater, will be neither cheap nor easy. But Dixon, a mine hydrogeology specialist and former technical advisor at the Nevada Test Site, was up for the project.
At that Oct. 5 meeting, however, the field office manager handed Dixon a three-page termination letter signed by the BLM’s Nevada state director. According to the letter, Dixon had "alienated many of the groups that we, as an agency responsible for managing public lands, need to deal with in accomplishing our mission in an efficient and effective manner."
"I met with Earle prior to his dismissal and voiced my concerns about his behavior and lack of professionalism," says Robert Abbey, director of the BLM’s Nevada state office. Dixon was fired, he says, because of his "lack of progress related to cleanup activities."
But in a 23-page sworn statement, Dixon maintains that he was fired for trying to ensure that the mine cleanup complied with federal environmental and worker safety laws. "All I was doing was my job," he says today. Dixon is neither shy nor subtle, and he knew from the beginning that his job would involve politicking. But, he says, "my title was ‘environmental protection specialist’ — not ‘environmental suck-up.’ "
As the BLM’s remedial project manager for the Yerington Mine site, Dixon was hired to clean the site according to laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of cleanup workers. He worked closely with other BLM staff, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, county and local officials, contractors and the mine’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield.
Throughout the course of his year with the BLM, Dixon says, he repeatedly had disagreements, particularly with state officials, over the presence of radioactivity at the mine, whether the uranium found last spring in the drinking water of Yerington residents was from the mine, and how to best protect cleanup workers and locals from radioactive contamination. Last spring, for instance, Atlantic Richfield supplied residents with bottled water, even though the company denied the uranium came from the mine.
Dixon carefully documented these disagreements. A January 2004 entry in his notes details what happened when he wrote a letter saying the state’s worker health and safety plan was unacceptable and did not meet federal standards: "State (BLM) Director Office staff modify letter to make it more politically acceptable & friendly." On March 24, when Dixon attended a meeting in Yerington to explain the project to residents, he says consultants hired by the mining company edited his presentation. Part of that day’s entry reads: "(Original) Talk also suggested that Uranium in domestic wells north of Mine site might be from the Mine. Talk is edited to not give any suggestion that Uranium in groundwater is from the Mine & to suggest that all Uranium in the area is naturally occurring."
After he was fired, Dixon spent a few days feeling stunned, he says. Then a friend at the BLM told him he needed to talk to someone at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. On PEER’s advice, Dixon found an attorney, and filed a complaint against the BLM with the U.S. Department of Labor.
While Dixon waits to hear if the department will investigate his complaint, he’s meeting with Yerington residents, working with environmental groups and doing what he can to make sure the cleanup and the mine’s risks aren’t brushed under the rug. "The state of Nevada thought I would just curl up, die and blow away," says Dixon. But, in his opinion, the problems at Yerington — the mining company’s attempts to avoid responsibility, the state’s efforts to protect the company instead of the community, and the unwillingness of a federal agency to uphold federal laws — are not limited to one mine site. "That model can be applied to mines across the West," he says. "Groups that want mining reform, they can use Yerington as their poster child."
"(Earle) was the key proponent within the agency for the community and workers at the time," says Elyssa Rosen, executive director of Great Basin Mine Watch. "It’s ironic that he would be targeted for alienating the community… and it sure looks fishy when you fire the guy who was finding and publicizing the radioactivity."
The Reno-based nonprofit, which exposed the leakage of uranium from the mine site last year, hopes Dixon’s complaint will bring more attention to Yerington. Says Rosen: "We’re looking forward to working with the EPA and (Sen. Harry) Reid’s office and coming together to get a solution that actually brings resources and clarity to the community."