Since 2010, residents of Ashe County, North Carolina, near what used to be the Ore Knob Mine, have been without clean drinking water. It was discovered that harmful contaminants had seeped into local wells. But the only solution the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended is a $20 million fix that doesn’t fit the rural community’s needs, and that could cause more harm than good. A communication breakdown over the past several years has resulted in no change for dozens of households in the area, some of whom are currently living off of bottled water shipped in each month.
In rural North Carolina, about 12 miles south of the Virginia state line, 45 miles southeast of Bristol, Tennessee, and eight miles east of Jefferson, the Ore Knob Mine was a major copper mine during the late 19th century, but the mine has been inactive since 1962. In 1972, the land was sold to five Ashe County businessmen intending to establish a historic site. Some of the site has since been converted to a museum, but the rest remains closed off due to contamination.
The EPA places the site on the Superfund program’s National PrioritiesList in 2009, when soil in the 15-acre 1950s mine and mill area was shown to have high levels of metals, including copper, zinc, iron, arsenic and mercury. The contamination is the result of tailings, or waste material left over after mining operations have extracted minerals from ore mined at a site. When air touches these mining remnants, acid can be produced. This acid from mine drainage has the potential to damage streams and other bodies of water. In 2011, the EPA completed an emergency response removal action to prevent a “catastrophic release of tailings into downstream waters” on the site.
According to a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services report from March 2010, potentially dangerous levels of manganese and cadmium were found in residents’ drinking wells in surrounding areas, affecting about 128 people. The EPA considers cleaning up well water as part of the longer-term recovery plan.
For now, some households have elected to receive monthly shipments of bottled drinking water from the EPA, provided by a private vendor in West Jefferson, the next town over from the residential area affected. The EPA has also provided residents with water softening systems installed to remove some of the contaminants from their private well water, said Davina Marraccini, public affairs specialist for EPA region 4, which covers the southeastern United States, via email. The cost to provide clean water for the nine residents who have subscribed to deliveries averages about $400 a month, or $38,400 over eight years since the EPA became aware of the health risk.
According to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, prolonged .exposure to the chemicals found in residents’ water can be unsafe. Manganese can affect the nervous system, leading to slow and clumsy movement, while cadmium can build up in the kidneys and cause disease. Both of these chemicals were found in levels that are potentially unsafe over time.
While the area was stabilized after the EPA conducted the emergency removal of over 70,000 cubic yards of tailings that were in danger of falling into the new river basin in 2011, there is still acid drainage coming from the mine.
In 2015 the EPA determined the best permanent fix to the water issue was to have the neighboring town of Jefferson extend a water line about 8 miles to give residents a permanent source of water, a solution that could cost $20 million dollars. Marraccini said there are about 50 people who would be using the water line, a mix of seasonal and permanent residents. The Army Corps of Engineers drew up a plan through an interagency agreement.
But Cathy Howell, Jefferson’s town manager, said concerns about the potential health issues associated with chlorination byproducts made extending the line an unattractive option.
When chlorine, a commonly used disinfectant for public water supplies, combines with organic compounds in water, haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes are formed, which are suspected carcinogens, said Tim Church, Town of Jefferson Water Resources Director.
“We have some apprehension about some of the problems that are associated with that project,” he said.
Church said his main concern is that with so few people using it water will sit in the line, causing dangerous disinfectant byproducts to build up, meaning the water in the new line will still be unsafe to drink — arguably moreso.
The area contaminated by remnants from the Ore Knob Mine is very rural. Church said it’s only crossed by a two-lane dirt road. The only real potential for growth he sees in the area is the construction of vacation homes.
As such, Eric Hudson, a regional engineer with the Public Water Supply Section, said he was also concerned the proposed line would be home to an unsafe level of toxic byproducts. The main challenge he sees is keeping the water fresh, and to avoid leaving it in a chlorinated tank where it will develop dangerous byproducts. In such a sparsely-populated rural area, it’s nearly impossible for the houses affected to use the amount of water required to avoid this buildup, and he thinks the town would end up flushing water out of the line to meet regulatory requirements, ultimately wasting more usable water than this solution would salvage.
And still, the proposed solution would cost $20 million. While the EPA would be footing this bill to install the water line, once it’s built the town of Jefferson would be entirely responsible for maintenance and upkeep. Hudson said the town could also be looking at fines if they can’t keep these chlorination byproducts below limits provided by the state.
“(The) EPA has tasked the Army Corps of Engineers to look into possible ways to address the disinfection byproducts issue, including reducing the size of the system,” Marraccini said. The agency anticipates that a final decision about the feasibility of the water line plan will be made by the end of April of this year, emphasizing that his team has been communicating with the town of Jefferson about the design over the past year.
In the meantime, Marraccini said the EPA is currently in the feasibility study phase of considering various options to clean up surface water contaminated by the mine, including constructed wetlands that could filter out and remove metals and acid contamination, and then discharge clean water back to the surface streams, for waters downstream of the site.
Jefferson aldermen were told they would be visited by the EPA at a town meeting, with plans for a new waterline solution that would better meet their needs, the Ashe Post & Times reported in December. According to the paper, the EPA never showed, and with no other options in mind, many residents remain using the same wells they have been.
Sammy Hanf (@sammyhanf) is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina.