Cleaning up the Elizabeth mine cost $ 103 million, more than 4 times the original estimate

STRAFFORD – In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency presented plans to clean up the abandoned Elizabeth Mine to the public for comment. He estimated the project would cost as much as $ 16 million, or nearly $ 25 million in today’s dollars.

Twenty years later, the cleanup of the old Strafford copper mine is complete and the final cost is $ 103 million.

The EPA completed work on the project earlier this month and provided a final cost statement this week.

Ed Hathaway, the EPA’s project manager at the Elizabeth Mine, said Wednesday that “cost increases are very common” in the Superfund program. The estimates presented to the public in 2002, he explained, were based on an engineering firm’s “conceptual” assessment, rather than a detailed “design” that would have determined the technical aspect of the project.

“We are not building a house. We basically unpack the site while we clean it up. … As we dig and work, we discover more challenges, ”he said.

The technical complexity, the volume of material moved – in the case of the Elizabeth mine, this included 400,000 cubic meters of waste rock – and the length of a project all added to the cost of the project, he said.

The EPA designated the abandoned 250-acre copper mine as a Superfund site in 2001, placing it on a national list of severely polluted priority sites for cleanup. Water contaminated with acids and metals had leached waste rock and tailings in the waterways that feed the west arm of the Ompompanoosuc River since the mine was closed in 1958. The contaminated water caused danger to aquatic life and an unstable tailings dam threatened neighboring houses.

Federal taxpayers foot the bill of $ 103 million.

In Superfund’s cases, the EPA is looking for “potentially responsible parties” to pay for the cleanup, and as of 2016, Superfund’s enforcement program negotiated settlements and issued orders that covered nearly 70% of the work. clean-up underway across the country, according to the EPA. .

But in the case of the Elizabeth mine, mining ceased in 1958 and the mining companies had long been bankrupt by the time the pollution in Strafford came to the attention of the EPA.

“Past and present owners and operators are responsible,” said Hathaway. But “in practice” on such so-called orphan sites “we basically understand that the average person doesn’t have the money to take care of this,” he added.

The EPA worked with the private owners of the Elizabeth Mine – which included the Cook family, the Zagaeski family and the recently formed Elizabeth Mine Historic Preservation Trust – so that the agency had unrestricted access to their property and could use the resources. on their land, but he did not hold them financially responsible.

When Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act in 1980, which instituted the Superfund program, lawmakers established a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries to fund the program.

But that tax expired in 1995 and federal taxpayers assumed this financial burden. Superfund’s revenue has declined by more than $ 1 billion since the 1990s, according to a 2021 report from The Public Interest Network.

The EPA’s list of “Superfund sites with new construction projects awaiting funding” reached a record 37 in 2021, and includes the nearby Ely copper mine in Vershire. The Biden administration has allocated $ 328 million for Superfund cleanups in 2022 and is trying to resurrect the “polluter tax.” But industry officials argue it would hurt the economy and companies are already cleaning up where they are directly responsible, according to Bloomberg Tax reports.

Ongoing projects are high priority in Superfund allocations, but the Elizabeth Mine clean-up still took more than 20 years, in part because of funding delays, Hathaway said.

“We had to pace the work so that the money was available,” he said.

Former Strafford Selectboard member John Freitag said the $ 103 million final cleanup turned out to be “in some ways the best money can buy,” but he also wondered if it should have been so important.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that there are approximately 500,000 abandoned hard rock mines in the United States, although most are much smaller than the Elizabeth Mine.

“Under no circumstances can we spend $ 10 million to clean up every site with acid mine drainage,” he said. Freitag also argued that the carbon impact of the cleanup itself – which involved tens of thousands of heavy truck trips carrying materials and equipment to and from the site – should have been taken into account.

When asked about the final bill for the cleanup, Hathaway said “the cost is ultimately proportional to the nature of the site.”

“Urgent removal action” between 2003 and 2005 stabilized a precarious dam and cost $ 8 million, according to a document provided by the EPA. Between 2006 and 2021, the EPA spent an additional $ 60 million on “non-urgent critical disposal actions,” which included installing a cover system over mine waste and diverting surface water from the mine. contaminated soils.

Risks to human health were already addressed in 2006, but environmental risks remained. Corrective actions to prevent damage to cleanup or any future consumption of contaminated groundwater cost $ 16 million, environmental investigations cost $ 17 million, and 22 years of EPA staff cost 2 millions of dollars.

“If the project has never been built, you can choose whether it is worth it or not,” he said. But a cleanse is more like a “wound,” he argued, and a doctor has to deal with an open wound no matter what. He also described how the EPA has limited the environmental footprint of the cleanup by using biodiesel and using clean soil from the property rather than hauling it in by truck.

And the cost is not the only consideration, he stressed. The Superfund has a “statutory mandate to fight human health and the environment,” Hathaway said.

Hathaway stressed that the EPA’s priority is to ensure that a Superfund site is safe and stable once the agency leaves. He listed various project successes: Without the EPA cleanup, a 20,000-panel solar generator could not have been built on the site. The cleanup weathered the torrential rains of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and will therefore likely withstand the intense storms that climate change is expected to bring to the region.

“If you’re going to spend that much money, you’ve got to do it right,” he said.

Claire Potter is a member of the Report for America Corps. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.

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