YERINGTON, Nev. (AP) — You can't drink the water on the Yerington Paiute reservation because it could kill you.
The ground water was poisoned by the old Anaconda copper mine, which stopped production in 1978 but still is designated as a federal Superfund site, according to the EPA.
Federal law requires that the reservation's drinking water must be bottled and provided by British Petroleum, the responsible party for the Anaconda ecological disaster.
But if Congress passes a bill that will allow for a 19-square-mile federal land transfer to the city of Yerington, copper mining would return to Lyon County and create hundreds of jobs.
The Native Americans desperately need those jobs — unemployment on the reservation is 65 percent — but they are wary of the environmental damage more copper mining could cause.
For 10,000 years, Mason Valley has been the Paiutes' land to nurture and respect, they said. The scar from the Anaconda copper mine cuts deep into their psyche.
"They got the minerals out and left," tribal member Vernon Rogers told the Reno Gazette-Journal about the Anaconda operation. "That (mine site) is like our living room. That is like us going into their house, digging up their living room and leaving. That's what we've got here. These mining companies come in and do this and then the permanent residents suffer the consequences."
Caring for Mother Earth is a duty handed to the Paiutes by ancestors. They view earth — the dirt, sky, water and vegetation — differently than others.
"We not only have to think of our generation, but we have to think of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren," said LaVerne Roberts, a Yerington tribe member.
That is why some tribe members are wary about the rebirth of mining around Yerington, even though it could be an economic godsend to Lyon County — Nevada's most economically depressed county.
The future of copper mining around Yerington is now being decided in Washington, D.C. If Congress passes a bill allowing for the land transfer, the once-thriving copper mining economy of Lyon County could return in a big way.
The land surrounds the Nevada Copper project. It would not only provide room for ancillary mining business, but also room for a recreational area, business park and outdoor concert venue in a grand plan to erase the economic disparity.
The Nevada Copper project is expected to eventually create 800 mining jobs with an $85,000 average salary and up to 2,000 more jobs indirectly tied to the mine, according to county officials.
Employing Native Americans
The Yerington Paiutes have not opposed Nevada Copper's Pumpkin Hollow mine in any legal way. Some may be wary but realize the return of copper mining is inevitable.
Instead of opposing the mine, they would like to share in the economic relief. Lyon County's unemployment is a state-leading 18 percent. Yet tribal officials estimate the unemployment at the Yerington Paiute reservation is about 65 percent. An official from the nearby Walker River Paiute Tribe told county commissioners that unemployment is about 80 percent among her people.
"We are not saying that the mine would be such a bad thing," said Gayleen Roy, Yerington Paiute education director. "We need jobs, too."
The tribe is only trying to better the lives of its members, Roy said.
"We, as a tribe, have to move with the flow of things," she said. "We have to change and adapt, just like everybody else."
Once hurdles like Congress and state permitting are finished, Nevada Copper will then focus on job training, including for Yerington and Walker River Paiutes, a top executive for Nevada Copper said.
"We will make the opportunities available for all locals, tribal members and whoever is local," said Tim Dyhr, Nevada Copper's vice president of environment and external relations.
Nevada Copper is teaming with the state's Nevada JobConnect to train a workforce.
"We believe there are people in the valley who want to work but don't have the necessary skills now," Dyhr said. "The job of an underground miner — nobody has experience in underground mining. We just can't send people underground. You have to have a certain kind of training. The same thing applies to every function within the project."
Dyhr said he gave talks about employment potential to the Yerington and Walker River tribal councils.
"It has been a while, but if I went back today, I'd tell them the same thing: Somewhere in the future we'll have jobs (available) and we'll have to figure out how to get people trained."
Wovoka wilderness area
The Yerington Paiutes and the Walker River Paiutes also have another reason to support the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Las Vegas, made it clear a few months ago that he would only support the Yerington land transfer if it included a wilderness area named after the venerated Paiute holy man of the 19th century, Wovoka.
Republican politicians like U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, were critical of Reid's meddling but realized they must acquiesce to the Senate leader or the land transfer was dead.
Last month, Lyon County commissioners approved a 48,000-square-acre wilderness area south of Yerington called the Wovoka Wilderness.
Although Reid has helped the Yerington Paiutes with issues surrounding the Anaconda site, Paiutes said they were never consulted about the wilderness area but are ecstatic to get it.
The wilderness area is sacred to the Paiute people of the region.
"We have ties to that land," Rogers said. "Our people go up there and we gather pine nuts. There are also a lot of sacred sites up there. It has a lot of petroglyphs. There are burial sites up there."
Animosity toward Reid
Some tribal members and others associated with the tribe said they were surprised by the anti-Reid vitriol expressed by some Lyon County citizens during an early December Lyon commissioners meeting about the Wovoka wilderness.
Some ranchers were against the wilderness, fearing it would limit grazing. Others feared it would limit many outdoor recreations.
"There was so much negativity toward Sen. Reid," said Lauryne Wright, the Yerington Paiutes' environmental director. "It was like, 'I'm against anything Sen. Reid is for.' "
Former Sen. Richard Bryan, a consultant for Nevada Copper, flew into Yerington for the next commission meeting and preached compromise. People bought what he was saying, and the wilderness area was approved.
"Compromise is part of the big picture," Bryan said. "By way of analogy, some people just hate wilderness, but many of them were prepared to say, 'Look, I don't like wilderness but there is another issue that was important and those concerns were that Yerington and Lyon County has some of the highest unemployment in the country and this was an opportunity for some economic development."
"So some who were not exactly rhapsodic about wilderness said, 'Look, for the greater good of the community, I think I can support this.' That's how I saw the compromise," Bryan said.
Despite the promise of jobs and the wilderness area, Paiutes remain concerned about potential ecological damage that could be done by the Nevada Copper project.
The same ground-water pollution that doomed their side of the valley could be repeated, Paiutes fear.
And this time, it could be worse, they warn. Since the water runs south to north in the valley, some Paiutes are concerned the mine could potentially spoil municipal drinking water in Yerington and the down-river water supply of the Walker River Paiute Tribe.
Yerington Mayor George Dini doesn't share the concerns: "Not one bit," he said.
Dini points to advanced mining technology, new federal regulations and stringent environment standards of the EPA.
"I don't believe that there is any potential for the Yerington water system to be contaminated by Nevada Copper," Dini said. "Nor do I believe that the Walker River could be contaminated in any way."
Dini is correct that environmental constraints are much more stringent compared to when the Anaconda mine was producing some 40 or 50 years ago, said John Hadder, director of the Great Basin Resource Watch.
"There have been significant changes since the Anaconda mine was in place," Hadder said. "We have better state regulations. We have a better calculation of the bonding that is necessary in case there is a problem. We have improvements in place in terms of the regulations. That being said, there still could be problems there with the existing regulations."
Nevada Copper has done significant studies on ground water, and those studies will be shared with the public after they are submitted to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.
Dyhr understands the Paiutes' wariness, since they have yet to see the studies.
"Their fears are legitimate because they have not seen anything to say, 'Do we know whether this will pollute the ground water or not?' I would not ask them to do that. I would ask them to listen with an open mind to the information that we have developed and not prejudge it to think it will be contaminating their water supply."
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