On a scorching July afternoon in 2016, Tesla founder Elon Musk unveiled his “Gigafactory,” a massive complex outside Reno, Nevada, designed to stimulate green technology in the West. It’s now mass-producing batteries to power electric cars, which directly emit none of the greenhouse gases of their combustion-engine counterparts.
Electric cars, however, require about twice as much copper as conventional vehicles. So as demand for Tesla’s products increases, so does demand – and prices – for the critical metal. That is playing out in a not-so-clean way in Yerington, just 60 miles from the gigafactory, where a new copper mine – financed by a Russian oligarch – is set to begin production this year.
The Pumpkin Hollow copper deposit was first discovered in 1960 outside Yerington on a combination of private and federal lands. In 2005, Canada-based Nevada Copper acquired it. Five years later, the deposit’s “outstanding potential” piqued the interest of Russian billionaire Vladimir Iorich, founder of Pala Investments, which soon became Nevada Copper’s largest shareholder.
In 2015, a congressional defense spending bill transferred approximately 9,000 acres of federal land to Nevada Copper by way of the city of Yerington, which zoned it for mining and eased the way for expedited permitting through the state.
Pumpkin Hollow is expected to be an economic boon; Nevada Copper says it will initially employ approximately 300 people and pay both property tax and a net proceeds tax to the city. It will be “the soul of the community,” said Yerington Mayor George Dini. “Our town right now is a community that can be described as kind of sleepy. ... We do agriculture, and we like mining.”
But for those who are still grappling with contamination from the Anaconda Copper Mine on the edge of town, which shut down in 1978, it’s not worth it. Over its six decades of operation, the Anaconda Mine contaminated groundwater and the Walker River – which is just several hundred feet from the mine’s gaping pit – with arsenic, copper, zinc, lead and cadmium. In 2011, hundreds of Yerington residents filed a class-action suit, accusing ARCO and its owner, BP America, of leaking toxic metals into soil and groundwater for decades and covering up the contamination’s extent. They received nearly $20 million in a 2013 settlement, but in 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deferred listing the mine as a Superfund site, instead giving oversight to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection.
“Our concern is that the fervor for jobs is going to overwhelm important concerns of environmental and long-term management concerns,” said John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, a nonprofit environmental justice organization. “We’re concerned that the (Pumpkin Hollow) project is going to result in long-term pollution of ... the water supply leading to a perpetual problem like we’ve seen at the Anaconda mine.”
The fact that the new project is driven by foreign cash is hardly comforting. “It’s easy to forget the global nature of projects like this,” said Ian Bigly, the mining justice organizer for nonprofit The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. (Disclosure: High Country News board member Bob Fulkerson is the development director and co-founder of PLAN.) “While Pumpkin Hollow will bring jobs to the community, most of the payouts from this project will benefit people far away from the town of Yerington while the town is left with some of the more devastating and lasting consequences from mining.”
Foreign investments have long fueled resource extraction in the West. Because Nevada Copper gets more than half its financing from Pala Investments, Pala – and Iorich – can dictate the selection of Nevada Copper’s board of directors. “Nevada Copper can’t claim this is a project for the community,” Bigly said. “The community hasn’t had much say at all in how Pumpkin Hollow was designed.”
Iorich founded Pala Investments to cash in on “green tech” metals like copper, which are needed not only for electric cars, but also for hybrids, wind turbines and other green applications. “The copper industry needs areas of good supply with low political risk, and that’s what we get in the United States,” said Pala spokesman Stephen Gill.
Now, nearly a decade after getting its first permit, the Pumpkin Hollow project will begin mining copper from both an underground and open-pit mine. Four other Western copper projects are expected to move forward this year, partly owing to the metal’s rising cost.
For some Yerington residents and members of the nearby Walker River Paiute Tribe, it’s a frightening echo of a toxic past, one that still persists. Recent tests have shown increased levels of copper mining pollutants – beryllium, cadmium, lead and selenium – in the groundwater. Peggy Pauly, who formed a citizen advocacy group in 2004 to address the groundwater contamination from the Anaconda copper mine site, told Audubon magazine this year: “We’re concerned our water will never be clean again.”
Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News.