The lawsuit filed more than a year ago accuses the companies of intentionally and negligently concealing the extent of the pollution for decades at the old Anaconda copper mine near Yerington.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones ruled Monday that the plaintiffs can try to prove the companies are liable for damage, negligence and even trespassing in allowing uranium and other contaminants to migrate into private wells and essentially storing it on nearby property without the knowledge of owners.
“This is a huge case,” Jones told lawyers during a motions hearing in Reno. “You may need at least a year’s worth of discovery.”
He tentatively set the trial for June 18, 2013.
Anaconda sold the mine to Atlantic Richfield in 1978.
Jones handed Atlantic Richfield a minor victory by ruling the 100-plus plaintiffs in the class-action suit cannot seek damages under the legal theory of unjust enrichment because Nevada law generally limits that sort of restitution to cases involving contracts.
Still, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they were pleased with the overall outcome of the hearing.
“We think he has left us enough legal avenues to get everything we’re after,” attorney Allan Kanner told The Associated Press after the hearing.
Kanner also said it was important that the judge actually set a date for the civil trial.
The controversy has dragged on for decades as Nevada — and more recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — have worked with limited success to force Atlantic Richfield to clean up the site covering 5 square miles about 65 miles southeast of Reno.
“The administrative process to clean up this mine has been going on for 30 years and nothing really has been done to actually clean it up,” Kanner said. “Hopefully, now we are putting everybody’s feet to the fire.”
Kanner was part of the legal team that sued BP for damages resulting from the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Lawyers for Atlantic Richfield said an unjust enrichment claim would be possible only if the companies had entered a contract or pledged something in return in exchange for storing the waste, said Greg Brower, a Nevada state senator and former federal attorney who is part of the defendants’ legal team.
More than three-quarter of the wells tested since 2010 within 2 miles north of the World War II-era copper mine have registered dangerous levels of uranium or arsenic or both that make the water unsafe to drink, according to EPA.
Without admitting any responsibility, BP has been providing bottled water since 2004 to hundreds of residents whose wells showed concentrations of uranium greater than 25 micrograms per liter. That’s below the EPA drinking water standard of 30 micrograms per liter.
BP and Atlantic Richfield maintain that at least some of the arsenic and uranium in the groundwater is naturally occurring in rocks and soil in Nevada and much of the West. The EPA agrees that is possible, but it established over the past three years that the source of the majority of the contaminants is the plume beneath the mine site.