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EPA and VT DEC Announce Emergency Actions to Stabilize Tailing Pile in Vermont

Release Date: 03/19/2003
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008

BOSTON - The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced a series of emergency response actions, being done in coordination with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (VTDEC), to help stabilize the largest of three tailing piles at the Elizabeth Mine Superfund site in Strafford and Thetford, VT.

The actions, which were presented Monday night to the Selectboards of Thetford and Strafford, are in response to a recent investigation showing that a 30-acre tailing pile known as TP-1 is marginally stable and could release a massive mudslide if the drainage system were to collapse or plug. The mudslide and flooding of Copperas Brook and the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River could jeopardize 11 low-lying homes and structures located one mile to 2 miles downstream from the site. Residents living downstream from the site are being notified of the situation.

Environmental impacts from the mudslide would also be severe and would extend 10 miles downstream of the site into the Connecticut River.

"EPA takes this situation very seriously and is working with the state and the communities to implement appropriate measures to stabilize the site and protect the downstream residents," said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office. "We're also working closely with the communities to ensure that emergency response plans are in place and that residents are fully aware of those plans."

"We believe that EPA is taking prudent and appropriate action to deal with a potentially dangerous situation," said the Thetford and Strafford Selectboards, in a joint statement after meeting with EPA officials Monday night. "We urge that all necessary funding be made available as soon as possible."

The immediate emergency actions, funded by EPA's New England Office and Vermont DEC, include the following:

    • EPA and VTDEC are undertaking regular inspections to track possible changing conditions at the site. Inspections will be done daily during warm-weather days and rainy days. Inspectors will immediately notify appropriate authorities if site conditions change.
    • VTDEC is installing debris racks to prevent debris from entering and plugging the drainage system that runs through the tailing pile.
    • EPA is obtaining large-scale water pumps that will be used to maintain a low water level on the tailing pile in the event that the drainage system fails or if there is a major snowmelt. The pumps and discharge lines will be available to pump up to 5,000 gallons of water a minute from various areas of the tailing pile.
    • EPA and DEC are working with local authorities to develop an emergency response plan, including possible evacuation plans in the event of a full-scale site collapse.
"The stability of the tailings pile and the potential threat to human health, property, and the environment downstream of Elizabeth Mine is of serious concern to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. We believe the measures to be undertaken by EPA, the Department and local authorities over the next few weeks are the appropriate immediate response," said Jeffrey Wennberg, Commissioner of Environmental Conservation.

"It is great that EPA is acting quickly to protect the community," said U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords. "I also want to see the threat permanently eliminated and I will do everything possible to see that the cleanup is funded without delay."

"Vermonters appreciate the swift, professional response by EPA New England at the Elizabeth Mine site. I am hopeful that together we can move ahead to address the immediate concerns of safety and stability, as well as the long range clean up needs," added Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy.

Additional stabilization measures may be necessary this summer and fall to further reduce the potential of a site collapse. A public meeting on the emergency actions and conditions of the site will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, at Barrett Hall in South Strafford.

As part of the larger Superfund investigation, a national mining expert hired by EPA evaluated the stability and potential risks from the three tailing piles at the 47-acre Elizabeth Mine site. Based on previous mining experience and computer models, the six-month investigation concluded that a dam failure and collapse at Tailing Pile # 1 could release between 500,000 and one million cubic yards of tailings depending on the size of the breach and how much water was being released.

Elizabeth Mine is an abandoned copper and copperas mine that operated in Strafford and Thetford from 1809 to 1958. When the mine closed in 1958, it left behind two large tailing piles (TP-1 and TP-2), one area of waste rock and copperas heap leach piles (TP-3), two large open bedrock cuts (North Open Cut and South Open Cut), a small area of waste rock (TP-4), over one mile and multiple levels of underground shafts and adits, and a satellite area of mining (South Mine) within the Copperas Brook and Lord Brook Watersheds.

The Elizabeth Mine site was placed on the agency's Superfund National Priorities List in June 2001. EPA signed an Action Memorandum in September 2002 to implement an early cleanup for the three tailing piles at the site. The plan, which was subject to extensive public comment last year and still needs funding from EPA Headquarters, would include measures to provide long-term stability for the tailing piles. The plan also addresses environmental impacts from the release of acid mine drainage from the tailing piles into Copperas Brook and the West Branch.