Laid To Rust
Six years and $19 million into a major Superfund cleanup, why is the Ompompanoosuc River running orange?
John Freitag has worn a lot of different hats since he first moved to South Strafford in the 1960s — organic farmer, town selectman, Lions Club president, local news writer for the Herald of Randolph, school bus driver–turned maintenance director at the Newton School, and full-time environmental gadfly. But on a Tuesday morning in mid-August, Freitag assumes the role of unofficial tour guide on a 3-mile stretch of the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River, where something this summer has gone terribly awry.
Freitag, 56, parks his old Ford pickup along Route 132 near the Strafford/Thetford line and leads a reporter down a wooded hillside towards the river. His destination is Copperas Brook, a shallow wash that dribbles to an unceremonious end a few hundred yards upstream.
Emerging from the woods and tiptoeing across a gurgling rivulet onto a sandy island, Freitag points to the terminus of Copperas Brook. Despite its meager flow this time of year, the creek is easy to spot. Reddish-brown, deeply acidic and laden with heavy metals, this minor tributary of the West Branch is biologically dead, a casualty of nearly 150 years of intermittent copper mining, and another 50 years of neglect at the now-defunct Elizabeth Mine just south of the river.
But this summer, tiny Copperas Brook has left a big, ugly scar on the West Branch, to the surprise of environmental officials and the dismay and outrage of many local residents. Just above the stream, the West Branch runs crystal-clear. But at the confluence with Copperas Brook and stretching for several miles downstream, the river looks like it’s been dyed burnt orange. Every rock, boulder, tree limb and root that touches the water is coated with a slimy, tangerine-colored silt. Except for the trees, ferns and mosses that line the banks, there doesn’t appear to be a single living thing in sight.
“You can see why some of us are a little discouraged,” says Freitag with a disgusted laugh. “It looks like a rusty toilet bowl.”
The orange tint is, indeed, rust — or, more accurately, iron sulfide precipitate that’s carried down Copperas Brook from the largest of three tailings piles near the Elizabeth Mine. In 1999 the State of Vermont, at the urging of local environmentalists, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to list the mine on its National Priorities List as a “time-critical” Superfund action. At the time, the biggest concern was that copper, zinc and other heavy metals were polluting the West Branch, which feeds into the Connecticut River six miles away. Copper and zinc are toxic to aquatic life, even at low concentrations. Since then, the EPA has focused most of its remediation efforts on the 30-acre mound of mine waste known as Tailings Pile No. 1 (TP-1).
But six years and $19 million into this massive engineering project, some local residents are now wondering whether the cleanup is doing more harm than good. Many who have lived in the area all their lives say they’ve never seen the West Branch look this degraded, even when the mine was still operating.
Meanwhile, others are asking a question that’s been tossed around for years: Did this project really need to be as big and expensive as it is? The EPA now says it’ll be working on this site for at least another five years, at a cost of $4 to $5 million annually. But according to Freitag and others, the primary reason the Elizabeth Mine was added to the National Priorities List was not because it posed any health hazard to humans — it doesn’t. Instead, it was because the State of Vermont couldn’t afford to foot the bill for the cleanup and found a way to get the feds to pay for it all.
For his part, Freitag wasn’t opposed to the Superfund designation when it was first talked about. The problem, he explains, is that Superfund was originally intended to deal with major, imminent threats to human health — think Love Canal — but wasn’t designed to address more modest ecological cleanups. As a result, he argues, the standard model that works well for toxic landfills and illegal dioxin dumps doesn’t really fit Elizabeth Mine. As Freitag puts it, “You end up causing more environmental damage than you save. It’s like using a sledgehammer to do finish carpentry.”
But state and federal officials strongly disagree with that assessment, suggesting that Freitag and others in the community don’t fully appreciate the scope of the problem. They explain that the current situation — i.e., an aesthetically ugly river — is only temporary and poses no risk to human health. (Thus far, no one knows what impact the rusty water is having on fish and wildlife.)
While officials at the EPA and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) readily admit they didn’t see this problem coming, they also say it has no quick or easy fix. However, the problem will eventually correct itself, they claim, once the tailings pile is capped with an impermeable cover and water can no longer seep into it.
Freitag is the first to acknowledge that Copperas Brook and the West Branch weren’t pristine waterways to begin with. As president of the Strafford Historical Society, he recounts the story of Elizabeth Mine as though he were a docent at a local mining museum. Ore deposits were first discovered in the area back in 1793 and were initially mined for pyrrhotite, a mineral used for manufacturing copperas. Copperas, an industrial chemical, is used for making dyes and disinfectants.
Elizabeth Mine opened in 1807 and operated off and on for 150 years. President James Monroe visited the site in 1817 as one of the nation’s first industrial chemical mining operations — no leisurely excursion in terms of early 19th-century travel. In the 1830s, Isaac Tyson Jr. — for whom Tyson, Vermont, is named — experimented with state-of-the-art copper smelting using blast furnaces and water-powered bellows not far from this stretch of the West Branch. Not surprisingly, there’s a street just up the hill from Copperas Brook called Furnace Flats Road.
Between 1830 and 1930, the Elizabeth Mine produced about 10.5 million pounds of copper; until the West was opened, it was considered one of the most important copper veins in the United States. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t until World War II and the Korean War that the Elizabeth Mine produced its largest copper supplies: After 1943, the site generated more than 90 million pounds. It was finally closed in February 1958.
At its peak, Elizabeth Mine employed 220 workers. Among them was Jim Condict, now 76, who’s lived in South Strafford for most of his life. Freitag and a reporter meet up with Condict several miles downriver from Copperas Brook on a concrete bridge that crosses over the West Branch. From 1955 to 1957, Condict worked at the Elizabeth Mine, mostly above ground, running errands, supplying parts for the heavy machinery, and carrying explosives to the mine’s open cut. He’s related to the Tyson family in town, who are descendants of Isaac Tyson Jr.
As a boy, Condict recalls swimming in the West Branch just below Rice’s Mill Bridge, about a half-mile upstream. Today, he can’t imagine anyone wanting to jump into the river. “This is pretty much the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he says, looking down at the rusty water below. “Even after big storms, it never looked like this.”
Bud Bushway agrees. His father also worked in the mine as a construction supervisor, and the younger Bushway has lived in the area for more than 60 years. “This is terrible!” he says. “I would hate to own one of those houses alongside the river and think I could sell it.”
Ironically, it was the government’s concern for the people who live along the river that may have contributed to the current predicament. Ed Hathaway is project manager for the Elizabeth Mine Superfund Site at the EPA’s Region 1 headquarters in Boston. He says geotechnical experts from Colorado conducted tests in 2003 that revealed TP-1 had become structurally unsound and was at risk of collapsing. The fear, Hathaway explains, was that if the tailings dam gave way, it could send a wave of toxic mud — some 500,000 cubic yards of the stuff — rushing downriver, wiping out homes and the people living in them. The ecological damage to the Connecti-cut River also would have been severe.
So in 2003, the EPA launched an “emergency action” to eliminate that potential disaster. Between 2003 and 2005, the southern end of TP-1 was buttressed, 30,000 cubic yards of tailings were removed, and new pipes and drains were installed to “improve the plumbing” of the pile.
In the process, however, several acres of wetlands were also cleared. For decades they had acted as a filter of sorts, removing metals that were leaching out of the tailings pile. Once that filter was gone, large quantities of iron began flowing down Copperas Brook and into the river. And as the brook’s alkaline water mixes with the more basic water of the West Branch, the iron deposits precipitate out and coat the river bottom with oxidized metal. Hence, this summer’s orange crush.
“You’re looking at something that, at worst, is a short-term phenomenon that is unfortunate in terms of the color,” Hathaway explains. “But iron is not going to hurt people.”
The impact on wildlife may be another matter. While iron is not considered toxic to fish or invertebrates, the oxidized precipitate tends to coat the river with an amber-colored slime, creating a less hospitable environment for fish, algae and other aquatic life.
Thus far this year, the state hasn’t done any biological monitoring on the West Branch, according to John Schmeltzer, environmental analyst with the DEC’s waste management division. Schmeltzer, who’s in contact with the EPA regarding the cleanup on an almost daily basis, says the rust-colored river was an unexpected consequence of the current operation. However, he says it remains to be seen what long-term impact, if any, it will have on life in the river, since parts of the West Branch below Copperas Brook were already considered a “dead zone.”
That appraisal is borne out by recent biological assessments. In January, an aquatic biologist with the DEC measured the number of invertebrates living in the West Branch as part of that agency’s ongoing monitoring of the river’s health. Consistent with the findings from previous years, the test found a degraded habitat below Copperas Creek; as a result, the state officially downgraded that stretch of river from a “fair” to “poor” condition.
Inexplicably, though, the control site upstream from Copperas Creek was determined to be degraded, too, leaving DEC scientists scratching their heads as to why the health of the West Branch seems to be getting worse rather than better. As Schmeltzer puts it, “It’s hard to know if the decrease is due to the mine or something else. The results from the test this fall will be interesting.”
Anecdotally, local folks who’ve long recreated along the West Branch say they have no doubt what’s harming the river. Condict says he fished the West Branch decades ago, after the mine closed. Mostly, he caught brook trout, though occasionally he hooked a brown or rainbow. According to Condict, the fish population seemed to recover somewhat after the mine shut down. In fact, during the 1990s, and as recently as 2002, the state stocked the West Branch with fish. Today, however, Condict is doubtful anything could survive in that orange water.
Duncan MacPhail, 30, of Thetford is an avid outdoorsman who’s hunted and fished along the river since he was boy. Twenty years ago, he says, the fishing actually wasn’t too bad on the West Branch. “There were always a lot of fish in the river,” he says. “You didn’t get the sense that it was biologically dead.”
On a weekend this summer, though, MacPhail walked several miles of the river to scout hunting sites. The difference between the two branches, he says, is stark: On the East Branch, he saw many more signs of wildlife, including beaver, mink, deer and raccoon. But aside from a few deer tracks along the West Branch, “It’s like a toxic waste dump,” he says.
“It’s a real disappointment,” MacPhail adds. “Why would you give someone $19 million to take a shit in your bathtub? I mean, what are we getting out of this?”
Bob Walker chairs the Elizabeth Mine Study Group, one of 10 so-called “community-action groups” in the Strafford-Thetford area whose job is to advise the EPA and DEC about how local residents feel about the project. Walker, who lives three miles from the Elizabeth Mine, is fully aware of what the West Branch looks like this summer — his property runs close to the river. However, he’s less critical of the EPA than are some of his neighbors.
“I think that, on the whole, EPA has been doing a pretty good job — once they stepped back and started involving the community in the discussion,” Walker says. “We’re frustrated and they’re frustrated at this current situation. They certainly didn’t intend for this to happen.”
Like Freitag and others in the community, Walker is concerned that the size and cost of the cleanup have grown well beyond what the community initially expected. “Anytime EPA gets involved in a project, the price and the scope inflate two- or threefold, partially because of the huge bureaucracy they have,” Walker states. “But whether it’s causing more harm than good? That’s tough to say.”
For his part, Hathaway at the EPA says he’s heard these complaints on countless occasions in the past. “I can completely understand how the scale of what we’re doing seems large,” he says. “But you have to remember that the scale of the problem we’re dealing with is large. It’s hard to do something small when you have a 30-acre tailings pile and a 15-acre waste-rock pile.”
There’s no incentive whatsoever for the EPA to spend more time and money at this site than any other, Hathaway asserts. “Nation-ally, we have many more projects than we have funds,” he adds. “If we could spend less money here and be gone, we’d be thrilled.”
Marie Ricketts isn’t convinced. As a member of the Elizabeth Mine Community Advisory Board, she shares Freitag’s assessment that the cleanup has become too big and costs too much. As a resident of Tyson Road, she and her family have had to contend with more than 5000 dump trucks rumbling to and from the cleanup site, raising safety concerns for her and her neighbors.
According to Ricketts, the advisory group’s technical advisors have been saying for a long time that this cleanup could have been done more conservatively and for a lot less money. Unfortunately, she says, the EPA has been reluctant to hear that message. “It just isn’t well received,” she says.
Part of the problem, says Freitag, is that, unlike other Superfund sites, Elizabeth Mine had no deep-pocketed polluter who could challenge the size and scope of the project; the last time anyone had an interest in the mine was in the 1970s, and that company divested its interests long ago.
Moreover, since this was initially an “emergency” — i.e. time-critical — cleanup, the state wasn’t required to pony up the usual 10 percent funding match. Instead, Vermont will only have to cover the maintenance and operation costs at the site once the EPA pulls out. “The whole incentive becomes: to do the biggest and most expensive project possible, in hopes that the long-term cost to the state will be less,” Freitag says. And, with no Act 250 permits or environmental impact statements required, “All the traditional checks and balances have been thrown out the window.”
Freitag doesn’t accuse anyone of acting maliciously or negligently on this project, however. Nor does he believe that politics played a major role in the scope of the project; he notes that both Democratic and Republican governors have supported the Superfund cleanup.
The problem, Freitag asserts, is that Superfund is simply the wrong tool for the job. And unfortunately, there are no other tools in the toolbox.
Freitag’s truck rumbles up Mine Road and lurches to a stop atop Copperas Hill. Here, it seems appropriate that this region is called Orange County. That name, of course, has nothing to do with the rust-colored soil. Nevertheless, the barren, Mars-like landscape, glimmering with alkaline deposits, looks unlike anywhere else in Vermont.
The narrow, open cut of the Elizabeth Mine itself is just over the hill above. Today, much of its deep, narrow gorge is flooded; the rest is now home to tens of thousands of bats, which state wildlife biologists are just beginning to study.
Nearby, is an old stone wall, a remnant of the old copperas factory that President Monroe visited in 1817. Inside, the remaining lead deposits from the copperas vats are the only real threat to human health.
According to Dartmouth College’s Center for Environmental Health Science, the Elizabeth Mine is now eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s not surprising that when a history buff like Freitag looks at the place, he sees ample educational opportunities. He suggests grinding off the entire hillside and letting Vermont’s many colleges and universities study how the landscape is healing itself.
“What you have here is an ideal laboratory, your own 300-acre watershed,” he says. “We can develop [reclamation] techniques for parts of the world where they don’t have $30 million to spend on a cleanup.”
And, Freitag suggests, there are other lessons to be learned at this Superfund site, especially as the EPA and DEC move ahead with their investigations of two other mine sites in the area — the Ely and Pike’s Hill mines. Both of those projects are in preliminary stages. Chief among the lessons at Elizabeth: Move slowly.
For his part, Hathaway at the EPA is sympathetic to such an idea, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
“For some people the most endearing part of this site is the worst hazard,” he says. “They look at these colorful piles and say, ‘Wow! This is really unique! You don’t see things like this in Vermont.’ But at the same time, they’re leaching acid and high levels of metals and killing all the fish below. In a lot of cases, there aren’t a lot of happy mediums.”
In the meantime, the job of cleaning up the Ompompanoosuc’s orange mess will fall to Mother Nature, who could take years, perhaps even decades, to finally scrub it clean.