New River zinc warning not applied to Ashe County

Wil Petty Staff Writer

September 16, 2013

Parts of the New River are experiencing higher zinc levels, but the waters in Ashe County remain unaffected by the metal.

“The river flows north, away from us, so (the zinc deposits) will not migrate in this direction,” George Santucci, executive director of the National Committee of the New River, based in West Jefferson said.

A dormant mine in Wythe County, Va. outside of Austinville, which was owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company, is the source of the zinc entering the river. The mine shut down in 1981 and the land is now owned by Dixon Lumber Company in Galax, Va.

Deposits drastically increased following this year’s wet weather.

“Unfortunately with the heavy flooding and rains we had this year and the way the factory was constructed to keep the metals out had failed,” Santucci said.

Ingesting too much zinc can lead to several problems including cramps, diarrhea, nausea and headaches. Zinc can also lead to copper deficiency in humans.

Santucci said that the risk of a release does exist in Ashe County, with the Ore Knob mine near Laurel Springs. In 2010, contaminated water flowed into the New River from the mine through Peak Creek.

“What happened (with Ore Knob) was basically the same thing, except with copper instead of zinc,” he said.

The NCNR has been fielding numerous calls from Virginia and West Virginia about the water, and few calls from North Carolina. Santucci said Ashe County remains safe from this particular spill.

“This release has not affected Ashe County and never will,” he said. “I think the takeaway from folks on this is that these legacy sites of old practices show how we did things differently back then, as opposed to now.”

The problem is getting fixed and the zinc levels in the New River are decreasing.

“It is getting contained,” Santucci said. “It is still severe in the Indian Creek and is a major concern that needs to be fixed, but levels in the river are below any concern at the moment.”

Santucci said that while many deposits from abandoned mines remain dormant, there is always a risk that they may be released into rivers.

“Many industries left materials underground and we hope it never goes anywhere,” he said. “But sometimes it does.”