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Cost of Ely Copper Mine cleanup climbs to $24M, but timetable for start uncertain

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/28/2019 9:44:49 PM
Modified: 8/28/2019 9:44:45 PM

VERSHIRE — The Environmental Protection Agency expects the cleanup of the Ely Copper Mine to cost at least $24 million — about $6 million more than estimated in 2011.

When the project will start is less certain.

“We’re finishing the design for it this year,” Ed Hathaway, longtime manager of Superfund remediation work for EPA in Orange County, said on Wednesday. “Then it joins all the other pending projects that go into a national pool and wait to be prioritized. It could be several years. My job is to be ready when the funding is available.”

Hathaway recently updated the selectboards of Vershire and neighboring West Fairlee — the latter’s main village is closer to the 350-acre site than to the population centers of Vershire — on the project.

So far, town officials aren’t holding their breaths waiting for this next step in the Superfund program’s long-term effort to stop the contamination of water supplies by chemicals leaching from waste rock mined long ago from a deep, wide vein of copper running under this corner of Orange County.

“ ‘Several’ years would be early, from the sound of it,” Vershire Selectman Marc McKee said on Wednesday.

“This is pretty much what we heard five years ago and 10 years ago and 15 years ago,” he said.

The difference this time is that the EPA is nearing the finish line of its $90 million project at the much-bigger Elizabeth Copper Mine in Strafford, where contaminated water had been polluting streams feeding the Ompompanoosuc River since the mine closed in 1958.

“Ely is much less significant than Elizabeth in terms of the sheer amount of rock and the acreage of where we’re planning to contain it, but it’s still a major undertaking,” Hathaway said. “The process that’s causing the contamination is the same, which is a significant ecological impact on Schoolhouse and Ely Brooks.”

A plant built at Elizabeth in 2008 treated 51 million gallons of leachate between 2008 and 2018. That final year, water-quality monitors documented that the concentration of copper flowing from Copperas Brook into the Ompompanoosuc’s west branch fell 99%, while the concentration of iron dropped 95%. Along the way, state and environmental officials removed the river from the list of waterways too “impaired” to support aquatic life.

How much leachate treatment infrastructure needs to be installed at Ely is one of the questions the EPA is assessing. To date, the only method attempted there was an experiment by the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which in 1995 installed 32-gallon barrels containing manure, compost, wood chips and limestone to intercept water from the mine’s drainage stream.

“We don’t have as much of an iron issue in Ely as we did at Elizabeth, which at peak was really belching iron,” Hathaway said. “It’s more of a copper-zinc-dissolved metals issue” in Ely.

While the Elizabeth mine’s operation remains in the memory of living Upper Valley residents, Ely and the nearby Pike Hill Mine in Corinth — yet another Superfund site — mostly stopped operating by 1905.

Second-growth forest long ago obscured the Ely mine and the cellar holes of the village, called Copperfield, that grew up around the operation. The 350-acre property now belongs to Dwight Hill Forest and Green Crow Corp., which manage part of the property as commercial timberland.

In all, some 200,000 cubic yards of waste rock, tailings, ore beds, slag heap and other waste were left aboveground and exposed to the elements. The EPA’s “long-term remedy,” according to its website, includes “consolidation, placement and covering of waste rock piles in a containment cell, and removal of contaminated sediments in Ely Brook and two small ponds and restoration of these areas.”

The agency also is inspecting the area around the mine’s former smelter, as well as the 3,000-plus linear feet of tunnels underlying the site. Some of those tunnels house an endangered species of bat, which is another consideration for the cleanup.

The EPA is accepting public comments on the project through Sept. 10. To learn more visit epa.gov/superfund/ely.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

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