The Incredible Shrinking Career

Brian Rimar, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, thought his assignment seemed simple enough: Monitor a herd of sheep through the southern Colorado grazing season, then dissect and analyze their livers for possible copper poisoning.

What Rimar didn't know was that the project would take his own career to slaughter.

A year after he began the sheep study at the request of Superfund scientists, Rimar became the subject of a secretive criminal investigation by the Office of Inspector General, the internal investigative arm of the EPA. Over the next two years he would be grilled and badgered by federal agents, yanked off his own study and forced to watch his field samples wither before they got to a lab for testing--all, he thinks, because the initial results of his study weren't what officials wanted to hear.

Thanks to Rimar's case and others, Congress has singled out the EPA for investigation by the General Accounting Office; a report on the agency's treatment of some of its own researchers is due out this month.

And if he appears before a congressional committee later this year, as expected, Rimar, 42, will explain how the agency railroaded his promising future as an ecotoxicologist, contradicted its own mission and mishandled one of the most distressing chapters in the history of Superfund cleanup sites--in this case, Colorado's infamous Summitville mine. Others will testify how the EPA has quashed scientific logic or has shown them the door after they blew the whistle on waste or abuse at the agency. Although the EPA is loaded with some of the country's best scientists, its management practices may be drowning in hazardous waste.

"The way I like to put it," says Sara Jones, a water-quality expert and co-chair of a Summitville citizens' group, "Rio Grande County got the mine and Conejos County got the shaft."

Located 250 miles south of Denver, prosperous Rio Grande County is home to the Summitville mine site, touted as Colorado's worst environmental disaster. Downstream lies Conejos County; with a per capita income of $12,673, it's one of the state's poorest counties. Its farm fields and main river, the Alamosa, had to swallow the mine's toxic runoff. For the moment, the river is dead.

The 1,400-acre Summitville site sits atop a whacked-off mountain towering 11,500 feet above sea level. Gold was mined here as early as the 1870s, but it was a foreign mining company that 120 years later created a catastrophe whose cleanup could cost taxpayers up to $175 million.

Summitville was a chemistry lesson in disaster. In 1985, with the state's permits and blessing, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, Inc. (SCMCI), owned by the Canadian-based Galactic Resources Ltd., began mining for gold using an "open-pit heap-leach" method. More than 10 million tons of ore were dug from deep pits, crushed and piled up to twelve stories high on a lined pad, then sprinkled with a sodium cyanide solution. The liquid percolated down through the heap into a pond below. Gold was then extracted from this cyanide soup. In its six years of operation, SCMCI recovered about eight tons of the precious metal. In early December 1992, the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site.

On December 16, 1992, at the state's request, the EPA moved onto the site and found a pool brimming with cyanide and a variety of metals, ready to gush over the side of the mountain. SCMCI had underestimated the amount of snowfall and overestimated the amount of evaporation at that high altitude; moreover, the heap-leach pad had leaked its lethal brew from the start. The EPA's emergency response saved the day, says Victor Ketellapper, the agency's most recent Summitville project manager.

But the emergency first aid was only the beginning.
In 1994 Summitville was declared a Superfund site. Since then, countless trucks loaded with earth and construction equipment have snaked up the eighteen miles of steep dirt roads in an effort to plug the flow of metal-laden waters from the mountain. Contractors are filling in the vast mining pit, creating a new "topsoil" by mixing lime and compost from local mushroom farms and replanting the area's fragile alpine vegetation. One hundred acres of the site were "reclaimed" last summer, and another 300 are left to go, says Angus Campbell of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is overseeing the reclamation and footing 10 percent of the cleanup bill. The EPA remains responsible for the mine's water-treatment plant, which cleans 1,000 gallons of water per minute at a cost of $2.5 million per year and, the state predicts, could be required to run until the end of time.

EPA attorneys have filed a civil suit to recover the full cost of the cleanup from Robert Friedland, the flamboyant Canadian multimillionaire who is widely considered the driving force behind Galactic's mining at Summitville. Galactic had posted a $4.5 million bond to cover the cost of reclamation, but total costs are expected to be more than 39 times that amount. Other efforts to force money out of Friedland have failed; last year a Canadian court rejected a U.S. Justice Department freeze on $152 million of Friedland's assets and ordered the government to shell out $1 million to cover the mining magnate's court costs.

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Gayle Worland