I-Team: BP's Environmental Mess in Nevada - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: BP's Environmental Mess in Nevada

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LAS VEGAS - New figures show BP Oil is falling short of what it promised it could do to clean up spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico. BP told federal regulators it would be able to collect nearly half a million barrels of oil each day in the event of a spill, but has managed to gather a mere 900 barrels per day since the spill began 77 days ago.

The Gulf might seem like a long way from Nevada, but our state has also been on the receiving end of BP promises, and they didn't work out well either.

The lake outside of Yerington is a mile long and 800 feet deep, but you wouldn't want to take a dip in its turquoise waters. This gigantic pit is the centerpiece of 80 years of copper mining at the 3,400-acre site. The Anaconda Mine had several owners. It was essentially abandoned ten years ago, leaving behind high levels of radiation in the rocks, as well as arsenic, acids, and other toxins that leach into the groundwater and blow into the air as dust.

"When you take a job with the BLM, you take an oath to protect human health and the environment," said BLM whistleblower Earle Dixon. "There is evidence that there were major releases of metals and radionuclides at the site."

A mere two weeks after being assigned by the BLM to oversee the mine site, Earle Dixon became convinced the place was a danger to everyone who lives around it. When Dixon started making noise, however, he ran into the political power of ARCO, the previous mine owner which had developed friendships with local and state elected officials, most of whom opposed designating the mine as a superfund site. That would be bad for business.

"ARCO also went to the state NDEP, and NDEP called the BLM Reno office," Dixon said. "Then, we got the call that I was being too aggressive asking all these questions."

Dixon says ARCO was even allowed by BLM to edit his public reports and take out the bad stuff. When he persisted in pushing for studies and a clean-up, then-Congressman Jim Gibbons wrote a letter saying Dixon should be fired. He was. Dixon's boss at the time was Nevada BLM Director Bob Abbey.

The company which owned ARCO, then and now, is BP. Dixon filed a whistleblower lawsuit and won in federal court. The Anaconda Mine was declared a superfund site. But years after Dixon blew his whistle, the site is still oozing radiation and poison. They're still talking about plans for a clean-up.

"ARCO/BP is very good at managing these types of sites to minimize the amount of money and progress," Dixon said. "They seem to know when to ask for an extension, and they say they are only going to do the minimum at this site."

The man who fired Dixon moved to Washington to head the entire BLM. Bob Abbey's newest job is to revamp the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, the agency which approved BP's offshore platforms in the Gulf. The BLM person now in charge of on-shore drilling is Sylvia Baca, who left the Department of Interior nine years ago to become the Vice President of BP. Her department was in charge of BP's emergency response plan for the Gulf. Baca later re-entered the revolving door and returned to the Interior Department in 2009.

"So, if you are with BLM, then you've got to have strong contacts with the oil and gas industry. So, I guess they kind of take care of their own. As long as people are making money, I guess everything is okay," Dixon said.

Although BP no longer owns the mine site, it is still on the hook legally for all the harm done to the environment in the years when it operated under ARCO.  The Environmental Protection Agency has jurisdiction, because the mine is now a superfund site, meaning it needs to be decontaminated. BP has been in no big hurry to fix things, though the company did offer to buy bottled water for residents whose water is too contaminated to drink.

BP has another connection to Nevada in a project that some say is the real reason for a deadly horse round-up in rural Nevada. The I-Team will have more on that story on Wednesday.

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