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Residents Weigh Options for Elizabeth Mine's Future as Cleanup Nears End

Strafford — The trucks have stopped rumbling in and out of the Elizabeth Mine, leaving behind a grassy expanse that was once colored a sickly orange.

The decade-long cleanup of the 206-year-old copper mine in Strafford is winding down. Now, residents need to figure out what they want to do with the reclaimed land.

“For the most part, a lot of the land is ready now,” said Ed Hathaway, a project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency and who has overseen the Superfund site. “We’re passed the major construction activities. ... The majority of the work we set out to accomplish back in 2000 has been done.”

Tonight in South Strafford, Hathaway will update the public on where things stand with the environmental remediation at the historic mine.

Next week, residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on where to go from here. Although the property is split among a number of private landowners, town officials are seeking guidance on whether they should work out some arrangement to open the property for public use such as an educational or recreational site, or even a solar power installation.

This year, the EPA finished sealing 45 acres of metallic tailings — the finely ground sulfide ore leftover from copper extraction — beneath a plastic wrap that prevents water and oxygen from reacting with the metals. That plastic cap was covered in topsoil and federal environmental officials will continue to monitor the site and clean up contaminants over the next several years, Hathaway said. After that, the state will take over responsibility for the property.

The copper mine hasn’t operated in more than a half-century. However, in the 1980s, sulfuric acid from the mine was discovered leaching into nearby waterways, including the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River and Copperas Brook. The Elizabeth Mine was declared a Superfund site in 2001 and work began two years later.

Now that the clean up efforts seem to be nearing an end, residents and officials are considering long-term options for the mine. It is historically significant, having operated from 1810 to 1958 and contributed to shaping the economies of Strafford and surrounding towns.

Some people, such as Strafford resident John Freitag, would like to see it become an educational and recreational area.

“It was important to the building of our community,” he said yesterday. “What’s unique about the site is it mirrors the whole industrial history of our country.”

Freitag, who has criticized the EPA remediation of Elizabeth Mine as being overblown, said the mine nevertheless can offer some lessons for other efforts to cleanup industrial sites, particularly as environmental officials look at similar projects nearby, such as the Ely Copper Mine.

“It’s critically important that there be an examination of what worked well and what didn’t,” he said.

Others have looked at how the mine might be used as an economic resource.

Dori Wolfe, an energy consultant who co-founded the solar installer groSolar, said she would like to see portions of the mine property covered in photovoltaic panels for generating electricity. There are more than 20 acres of land that seem ideally suited to such a project, she said. And, given the growing opposition to wind projects on Vermont’s ridgelines, solar is a good renewable alternative for the state, she said.

“It’s rare in Vermont to get non-agricultural land that’s flat, free of trees and not used for other purposes,” she said.

One challenge would be cost. Upgrading power lines to connect a 5-megawatt solar array there to the grid would be in the millions of dollars, Wolfe said. However, there might be some way that such a project could help offset costs to the state for long-term maintenance of the site, she said.

When the EPA leaves, responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the mine site falls to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Annual costs for that work are estimated in the $75,000 to $125,000 range, said John Schmeltzer, the project manager with the state.

None of these ideas for the long-term prospects of the mine can happen without buy-in from the disparate landowners. Attempts to reach those landowners yesterday were unsuccessful.

If there’s enough interest from the community, the town might consider taking ownership of the land and opening it to the public, said Strafford Selectboard Chairman Steve Willbanks. Two of the property owners have expressed interest in using the Elizabeth Mine for educational purposes, he said. However, liability concerns would have to be addressed before that could happen, he said.

Two steep cuts remain open, one of which is filled with water and creates “an attractive nuisance” where Dartmouth students and others have gone to swim illegally, Willbanks said. Many years ago, someone died there.

“It’s been promoted as a recreational site, but it’s actually pretty dangerous,” he said.

There are also tunnels snaking several hundred feet beneath the ground. Many have wondered about the consequences to landowners should someone get hurt, said State Rep. Jim Masland, a Democrat who represents the Windsor-Orange 2 district, which includes Strafford.

“There are questions of liability of landowners,” he said. “Whose responsibility is it if someone falls in?”

If the town doesn’t assume ownership, it might be possible to create a dedicated land conservation organization for the mine, Willbanks said. But decisions like those are a long way off. First, he wants to hear what the community says.

“I want to find out what the interest is in trying to make something unique out of that site,” he said.

Tonight’s meeting on the EPA remediation at Elizabeth Mine will begin at 7 p.m. in South Strafford’s Barrett Memorial Hall. Next week’s meeting on the future of the site will be Dec. 5, also at 7 p.m. in Barrett Hall.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.