Copper Mining in Vermont -- It's Not All Maple Syrup and Fall Foliage

Driving through central Vermont this past week was quite a sight! There was an abundance of color, both with the leaves turning and the die-hard fans making the yearly pilgrimage. I was told this was typically the start of "Stick Season," meaning the period after foliage and before the first snowfall. This year, however, I was lucky since most of the sticks are still brightly covered with oranges, yellows and reds.

The area I visited is best known as THE most popular destination to photograph New England foliage. Movie buffs know it as the setting for the film Beetlejuice. But Dr. Saleem Ali, a professor of Environmental Planning at University of Vermont (UVM), knows it as one of the most productive mining centers, historically and currently, in the US.  

Not long ago, he went on an aerial tour with Dr. Ian Worley, Director of the Environmental Program at UVM and a skilled survey pilot, to investigate the remnants of the copper mining industry in Vermont. Aerial photography, he told me, is a valuable tool in environmental planning, particularly when studying mining projects.

In the following text, Dr.Ali tells Superfund365 a little bit about Vermont mining and the history of this region, which includes three, old copper mines turned Superfund sites -- Elizabeth Copper , Ely Copperand Pike Hill.

From Dr. Ali:

The rolling hills and valleys of Vermont are often associated with farming and maple syrup but minerals have also been an important resource for Vermonters. My work aims to inform the public about the benefits and costs of the mineral legacy in Vermont.

According to the Vermont Geological Survey, the following products are found in Vermont: granite, marble, slate, talc, verde antique, soapstone, schist, sand and gravel, as well as crushed limestone, marble, dolomite, granite, quartzite, and slate.  As of 2000, there were 42 fully operational mines in the state of Vermont, and 142 listed as intermittent. In 2003, Vermont ranked 4th in the United States in dimension stone production by tonnage, and in 2001 the state ranked third nationally in production of granite, second in production of marble and first in production of slate (USGS Mineral Industry Surveys, Dimension Stone, 2001).

Vermont State concentrates on five types of mining: asbestos, copper, granite, marble, and slate.  The first three, granite, marble, and slate, continue to be processed today, while the latter two, asbestos and copper, are no longer in production.  All five, however, are good examples of how mining changes Vermont landscapes and the people that live on them.

It is especially important to understand the environmental and social implications of mining.  Regardless of the locale, mining may result in the following problems (Miller, 2004):

* An increase in noise, dust, and air pollution

* An increase in surface and groundwater pollution

* Concerns over how to store and dispose of waste

* An increase in stormwater runoff, erosion and sedimentation

* A decline in landscape utility for future use

* An increase in truck traffic, which may lead to a decrease in highway safety and an increase in municipal highway spending

* A decrease in aesthetic appeal and a reduction in property values

In the 1970s, Vermont passed Act 250 in an attempt to minimize environmental degradation and plan for the extraction and development of its natural resources. In terms of Vermont’s earth extraction industries, Act 250 grants permits to applicants demonstrating that none of the following, extraction, processing, or disposal, will have an adverse affect on the environment and surrounding lands.  It also ensures that the development or subdivision of land will not interfere with or prevent the extraction of significant mineral deposits or earth resources.

Despite this safeguard, mining industries, municipalities, and citizens sometimes disagree over the economic, cultural, and environmental benefits/costs of mining.  

There were at least three copper mines in Vermont: the Elizabeth Copper Mine, the Ely Copper Mine and the Pike Hill Mines.  All three mines contributed to the technological innovation of copper production, were the scenes of labor-related strife , were responsible for dramatic landscape changes, and are now considered historically significant.  All three are designated as EPA Superfund sites.

Here is a more detailed look at one of those sites, the Elizabeth Copper Mine.

The Elizabeth Copper Mine is an abandoned mine in South Strafford, Vermont.  Deposits at the mine were discovered in 1793 and copperas manufacturing began in 1809.  This industrial chemical was highly valued in the nineteenth century and production of copperas continued for at least 70 years (until the end of the 1800s). Demand for copper in the late 1800s and early twentieth century increased significantly and technological advancements made it possible to extract more copper with less fuel and labor.  Yet the lives of these companies continued to be short lived because of “idiosyncrasies in the ore, dramatic accidents, and poor capitalization and transportation” (United States Army Corps of Engineers, 2001, 7-1).

During World War II, the Elizabeth Mine was revitalized and it became “the largest and most productive copper mine in New England” (United States Army Corps of Engineers 2001, 7-1). It was owned first by the Vermont Copper Company, Inc. and then sold to Appalachian Sulfides, Inc. after the end of the Korean War (1954).  Production exceeded 8,500,000 lbs. in 1954 and then again in 1955, the most the mine had ever produced.  The company employed roughly 220 workers, sent $1 million on payroll, and recorded sales of approximately $3 million.  The Elizabeth Mine closed for good in 1958 after copper prices dropped and Appalachian Sulfides, Inc. decided to move their sulfide copper mining operations to North Carolina.  At the time of closure, the mine consisted of roughly 1,400 acres (though only 850 of these were actively mined) as well as 5 miles of underground workings (Howard, 1969).  The impressive production also left indelible scars on the landscape, and it has contributed to much of the deposited waste which adversely affects water quality.

Initial production came from an open-cut mine and underground work began in 1886.  Mining, copper smelting, and ore processing all took place at the site.  These processes resulted in three mine “tailing” or waste piles rich in metals and sulfides.  As a result of water passing over and through the tailing piles, acid mine drainage was produced.  This, in turn, has contributed to high metallic levels in the nearby Copperas Brook and Ompompanoosuc River.  Over the past twenty years, there have been increasing concerns regarding the hazardous impact of the Elizabeth Mine on these bodies of water.  It is estimated that tailings, if unabated, may affect the water quality for “hundreds perhaps thousands of years” (Desch and Schmeltzer).

The mine, now split into private parcels and owned by a number of different residents, is currently part of the EPA’s Superfund Program and was awarded $3 million in federal clean-up funds in 2003.  With help from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the EPA is actively trying to stop acid mine drainage, working to prevent runoff from contacting the three tailing sites.  In the process of controlling acid mine drainage, the EPA also determined that a tailing dam was unstable.  In 2004, the EPA installed a soil buttress to stabilize the dam and prevent further downstream pollution; they also removed 30,000 yards of tailing from one of the sites.  A remedial investigation and feasibility study of ecological damage for the entire site is expected to be completed in 2005, and a cleanup plan is anticipated in 2006.  Throughout the cleanup process, community members and state officials have expressed concern regarding the historical significance of the site and the need to minimize truck traffic during operation for preservation purposes.  For this reason, the EPA needs to abide by the National Historic Preservation Act and the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation.

Thank you for the informative description Dr. Ali!

His References:

Miller, M.  2004.  Conducting Natural Resource Inventories in Vermont: A Case Study of the Town of Belvidere, Vermont. Thesis Project, University of Vermont.

Howard, P. F.  1969.  The Geology of the Elizabeth Mine, Vermont.  Montpelier, VT: Dept. of Water Resources.

Desch, G. and J. Schmeltzer.  “Acid Mine Drainage in Vermont.” Vermont Times – no date found.

United States Army Corps of Engineers. 2001.  Historical Context and Preliminary Resource Evaluation of the Elizabeth Mine, South Strafford, Orange County, Vermont.  Cambridge, MA: Arthur D. Little, Inc. Willard, K. 1980.  “The Rise and Fall of Ely.” Momentum, November 19, 1980.
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