Cleanup nearly done at Elizabeth Mine as EPA prepares handoff of Strafford Superfund site

  • Workers at the Elizabeth Mine on Thursday, June 6, 2019 in Strafford, Vt., build a passive treatment system for groundwater. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

  • The Elizabeth Mine on its last day of operation in Strafford, Vt., in 1958. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/4/2021 9:29:13 PM
Modified: 11/4/2021 9:29:22 PM

STRAFFORD — The Environmental Protection Agency is working fast to remove its equipment from the Elizabeth Mine in Strafford before the snow stymies its departure. After 20 years and more than $90 million, the Superfund cleanup project at the former copper mine is days away from completion.

“You’re looking at something that took the better part of a century and a half to create — an extensive area, hundreds of acres of contamination,” said Ed Hathaway, the EPA project manager. “The level of cleanup and the extent is a function of what you inherit.”

On Nov. 18, Hathaway will make his last visit to the site he has been overseeing for more than two decades before the state of Vermont takes over most of the monitoring. The EPA is transferring control of the property, which straddles the border with Thetford, to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, although it will continue to provide technical assistance and conduct reviews every five years.

The 250-acre mining area was declared a Superfund site in 2001 — a designation preserved for the most polluted sites in the country. A century and a half of mining had left a mosaic of toxic waste, and a complex cleanup that involved buttressing a dam that held back 700,000 gallons of water; cleaning up open cuts that contaminated nearby streams; stabilizing 19th-century mining tunnels; and rehabilitating 8 acres of “toxic wetlands into 15 acres of clean wetlands,” Hathaway said. Now, brooks and the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River that once flowed orange with contaminants run clear.

John Schmeltzer, an ANR hazardous site manager, said that the state will be mowing, sampling and maintaining the “passive treatment system” installed by the EPA. On average, the state will spend about $61,000 a year maintaining the cleanup, although each year’s expenses will vary, he said. Greenwood Energy, a New York-based company, will mow the 27 acres where it owns a 5-megawatt solar array that generates enough energy to power 1,200 Vermont homes annually.

The old mine may become a place where people will learn about the region’s industrial history and geology, said Stephen Willbanks, the president of the Strafford Historical Society.

The site itself remains privately owned. The Zagaeski family, one of the owners, gave the historical society a small easement — no more than a few hundred square feet — on some property that overlooks the mine, Willbanks said. Last month, six panels explaining the history of the mine were installed on the easement, which is located at a bus turnaround on Mine Road, where they are readily accessible. An additional six panels are scattered throughout the site on private property.

The EPA oversaw the installation of the panels, which were part of a “mitigation plan” because the site is protected by the National Historic Protection Act. Hathaway said the private property owners have committed to making panels on their land accessible during certain events.

In the meantime, Willbanks said the Historical Society is in touch with the Newton School in Strafford and hopes that the site can be an “outdoor laboratory” where students will study geology and history.

Scott Reilly, a former mining engineer, is at the fore of the Elizabeth Mine Historic Preservation Trust. The Trust has acquired 47 acres of the property, which is assessed at $54,200.

Messages for Reilly were not returned this week, but plans for the site are still in the “conceptual” stage, said Willbanks, who is also the chairman of the Strafford Planning Commission. However, the old changing house — where miners once donned their work clothes — could become a museum. The Historical Society has collected many artifacts from the mine’s 200-year history: maps, documents, rock samples, tools, headlamps. Reilly has his own collection of artifacts from the region’s industrial history. A museum would be the perfect space to share them with the public, Willbanks said.

“Many, if not most, Superfund projects have no ‘after-life,’ meaning that few Superfund projects, after remediation, have a productive use afterward,” Willbanks wrote in a follow-up message. “With the solar array and the potential for a museum and the historical, educational, geological, recreational and touristic interest, the Elizabeth Mine may just have a rich and useful final chapter.”

Two other Superfund sites are nearby — the Ely Copper Mine in Vershire and the Pike Hill Copper Mine in Corinth. The investigations and design work are complete for the Ely Copper Mine, which now awaits funding. In Corinth, site investigations have only just begun and the EPA is still determining what the cleanup will look like, Hathaway said.

The completion of the cleanup in Strafford will not affect progress on those sites, Hathaway said. An annual “national prioritization” process determines which sites get funding to proceed in a given year.

“That’s a decision that’s above me,” Hathaway said. “I work with what’s made available.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727- 3242.

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