After getting cop block’d while exploring the abandoned Sage Crest Drive-In in Yerington, I headed over to the former mining town of Weed Heights to check out the recently designated Superfund site of the massive Anaconda Copper Mine.
Yerington, Nevada isn’t a town most normal people would think about visiting. Situated in the Mason Valley on the Walker River, about 65 miles southeast of Reno, it began its existence as a small trading post and whiskey store called Pizen Switch, a reflection on the poor quality of the whiskey. It boasts the largest trap shooting range in central Nevada, a golf course that is open year round, and a weeks-long summer softball tournament that attracts teams from all around Nevada and the West. It’s also home to the long-abandoned Sage Crest Drive-In.
When it opened in 1954, Sage Crest had enough space for up to 250 automobiles to enjoy the opening movie, Disney’s “The Living Desert.”
The drive-in had a fairly long run but was unable to survive once the Anaconda mine ceased operations in 1978.
Just as I was about to get out and explore the inside of the building where the projector booth and snack bar were located, an officer from the local police department pulled up and shooed me away. Thankfully, the abandoned drive-in wasn’t the only interesting thing to see in the area.
In nearby Weed Heights, which was built in 1952 by the Anaconda Copper Company to support the mine, the huge open pit of the former mine still remains.
Initially opened in 1918 as the Empire Nevada Mine, the abandoned site comprises 3,400 acres in the Mason Valley, an irrigated agricultural oasis in the otherwise largely barren high desert. Anaconda Copper Company acquired the site in 1941, producing 1.7 billion pounds of copper from 1952 to 1978. The site was sold to Arimetco, Inc., in 1988, according to the EPA. The company, however, went bankrupt and abandoned the location in 2000.
Most of the material remains in tailings or in leach heap piles. The copper was processed from the extracted ore using two processes. Copper oxide ore (from the upper portion of the pit) was processed by heap leaching, either directly with sulfuric acid in vats to produce a copper solution precipitated by passing it over scrap iron, or by leaching successively in acid and kerosene solutions.
In 2013, former Anaconda site owner Atlantic Richfield Co., a subsidiary of BP America Inc. settled for $19.5 million with residents who filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. The lawsuit alleged that Atlantic Richfield covered up the extent of toxic pollutants such as uranium and arsenic leaking from the site into the soil and drinking water.
The state of Nevada recently agreed with efforts by the EPA to include the abandoned copper mine on its priority list of contaminated sites. With the NPL inclusion, federal funds will cover 90 percent of the estimated $30 million cost of cleanup, with Nevada making up the remainder. The cleanup work needs to get started soon. Currently water that drains from the mine tailings is funneled into evaporation ponds that are quickly running out of space. They are projected to reach full capacity by 2019, which is why Anaconda needs to be on the fast track for cleanup funding. If everything goes according to plan the site will be funded by March 2017 and work will begin by the end of the same year. So will the cleanup finally put an end to Yerington’s economic troubles? Probably not but at least the area will be less polluted, which is always a good thing.