The Environmental Protection Agency wants to construct a waterline extension from Jefferson to Laurel Springs to provide safe drinking water to residents whose water is contaminated by toxins seeping up from the Ore Knob Mine shaft.
Representatives from the EPA and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) were on hand to address the Jefferson Board of Aldermen’s regular meeting on Tuesday, May 27 concerning the potential waterline.
“We have a lot of contaminated wells that the flooded mine contaminated,” Loften Carr, Remedial Project Manager with the EPA, said. “There are 13 homes out there who have contaminated wells.”
The EPA was first mobilized to the mine, which closed in 1962, in 2007, to inspect and stabilize the tailings dam and sediment pond. The dam eventually failed, collapsing and sending dangerous concentrations of heavy metals into the wells of residents who lived near the mine.
“They have really bad water right next to the mine,” Carr said. “We want to extend a waterline out there to the people who have the problem.”
The proposed waterline, which is in its planning stages, would extend approximately nine miles and the estimated construction cost could run anywhere from $10-$12 million, but the EPA would foot the entire bill.
“This is all what EPA is going to pay for,” Carr said. “There would be no responsibility to the town of Jefferson.”
Carr said the EPA has looked into several low-cost options, such as installing in-home treatment systems and developing and building a community water system.
In-home treatment systems include using bottled water or water purification devices. Residents are already using such methods, but they’re not a good long-term solution for a community facing such a challenge.
“They’re pumping the contaminated water into their house, from what the mine has contaminated underground and then they’re cleaning it with those systems in their house,” Carr said. “A community water system has problems with it because we have to be able to put in a community well close enough to the community and not start sucking in mine water again, and then we have to build the infrastructure for that as well. Then the community has to form a group and there has to be a community water district set up.”
According to Carr, extending the waterline would be the best option based on implementation, cost, and long-term operation and maintenance. In addition, the town of Jefferson and DENR would all play an active role in the design process.
“We have decided at this point that the preferred one would be extending the water line, but its your water,” Carr said. “We would build it and there would be no responsibility to the city of Jefferson. We just want to get the water that you have.”
“Basically what we’re saying is, we’ll build it and we will hand it over to you all and it will be your water line,” Carr said. “Consider letting us build a $10 million water line and then we’ll give it to you.”
The most important thing to do at Ore Knob Mine, according to Carr, is to get rid of the risk to human health.
“We’re gonna do a lot more out there,” Carr said. “We got to clean up Ore Knob Branch, Peak Creek, Little Peak Creek. We’re gonna be spending a lot more money out there because I gotta fix up all the bad water that’s coming out of there.”
Mark Mallette, one of the residents affected by the mine, asked how long it would take to get the funding and start work on the waterline.
“Not nearly as fast as you’d like it to,” Carr said. “It will be at least a couple of years.”
Nestor Young, EPA section chief for the project, also answered Mallette’s query.
“The critical piece is getting the funding from headquarters,” Nestor Young said. “So, we would come out with a plan, come up with our estimate and then go to headquarters and get our funding. The variable we don’t know is if there’s gonna be money for it or not.”
Young said it’s not a matter of if, but when funding will become available.
“The good news is that when they (EPA) prioritize these projects, this will be at the top of the heap because we have people drinking contaminated water,” Young said. “They would consider it a high priority project and would fund that first.”
Young said at the earliest, construction on the proposed waterline would start in 2016.
“We’ll be out there for quite a number of years fixing this,” Young said.
“It’s a bad situation out there,” Mayor Bluferd Eldreth said.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.