Environmental tragedy as high levels of zinc flow into Appalachia’s historic New River


APPALACHIA, February 27, 2014 — Last fall evidence showed alarmingly high levels of zinc flowing into the New River, raising serious concerns about the health of the river and the impact of the pollution on surrounding communities. It also highlights reluctance by the Department of Environmental Quality to respond to the problem in a timely manner.

The New River flows through central Appalachia, crossing North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia before merging into the Kanawha River in south-central West Virginia. The New River is an ancient river system, second only to the Nile in age. It is also one of only 14 rivers in the country designated as an American Heritage River.

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The recreational appeal of the New River is a goldmine to the economically depressed Appalachian region. A myriad of small businesses cater to the millions of tourists who come to enjoy the river. Anything that harms the river also harms these businesses, so maintaining a healthy environment in and around the New River is essential.

Since at least January of this year, a frightening amount of zinc has been flowing directly into the New River by way of Indian Branch in Wythe County, Va. The upper part of Indian Branch near its source is also known as Buddle Branch.

Lime filled creek - Image by Lisa King
Lime filled creek – Image by Lisa King

According to the EPA, the safe limit for zinc in fresh water is 120 ug/L, or 120 micrograms per liter.

A quarterly water test conducted by Austinville Limestone Company on January 7, 2013 and received by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on January 9 indicated the level of zinc in Indian Branch was 3900 ug/l, more than 30 times the safe limit. The same test conducted on April 5 revealed the level of recoverable zinc had reached 8980 ug/L, approximately 75 times the safe limit. The most recent test results received by the DEQ on July 5 revealed the level of zinc in Indian Branch had risen to 15,700 ug/l.

If a person consumes too much zinc symptoms like headaches, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea and loss of appetite are common. Over time, excess zinc can lead to more serious health issues like lowered immunity, low HDL cholesterol levels and low copper levels. Most amphibians show serious adverse effects at waterborne zinc concentrations greater than 1500 ug/L.

The source of the zinc is a field of mine tailings dumped over a period of several decades by the New Jersey Zinc Company. New Jersey Zinc mining and smelting sites at De Pue, IL, Palmerton, PA, and the Eagle Mine in Eagle County, CO. are listed as EPA Superfund sites.

New Jersey Zinc closed its Wythe County mine in 1981.The field is currently owned by Dixon Lumber Company of Galax, VA.

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Because of environmental concerns, on June 3, 1994 Dixon Lumber was ordered by the Virginia State Water Control Board and the DEQ to remove the tailings pile and restore all disturbed areas, including any affected waterways by June 1, 1999. In 1999 this deadline was extended to June 1, 2008. In 2008 it was again extended to the current deadline of June 1, 2015.

The order also gave the DEQ the authority to cease removal of the tailings and order corrective actions if any water quality samples indicated that discharge from the site contained elevated levels of dissolved metals.

DEQ representatives provided no response to emails asking if it was common practice for the DEQ to grant an additional 15 years to comply with their orders.

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Rather than making an appropriate and sustained effort to meet the original 1999 deadline, Dixon Lumber contracted Austinville Limestone Company of Austinville, Va. to remove the field one truckload at a time. Austinville Limestone currently charges from $9.50 to $90 a ton for the limestone products it extracts from the field. An interim progress report submitted by Dixon Lumber on February 8, 2013 revealed that 551,786 tons of material has been removed from the site so far.

According to a representative of the DEQ, Indian Branch was originally piped under the field to protect it from contamination from the mine tailings. After passing under the field, Indian Branch was routed back to the surface as a free flowing creek. But according to the DEQ representative, a leak in this pipe has allowed Indian Branch to resurface and flow directly through the field rather than under it.

Lime filled creek - Image by Lisa King
Lime filled creek – Image by Lisa King

Despite numerous complaints from concerned local citizens funneled through various agencies and elected representatives, the DEQ failed to conduct a single water test.

As a result of the inaction of the DEQ, at least a foot of zinc laced mine sludge now lines the banks of Indian Branch. The same condition exists where Indian Branch empties into the New River. At the very least the DEQ should order Dixon Lumber to remove the buildup of mine sludge from Indian Branch and New River. No such order has been made and no fines or penalties have been levied against Dixon Lumber because of the spill.

The problem has been partially fixed according to the DEQ. But months after being made aware of the problem, a portion of Indian Branch still flows through the mine tailings on its way to the New River.

Mining and polluted waterways are a fact of life in Appalachia. If this incident is an example of how the DEQ responds to environmental emergencies, it does not bode well for the future of the region’s waterways.

This article originally posted August 23, 2013

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I was born and educated in Southwest Virginia, traveled with my job all over America in my twenties and early thirties then came back to the mountains to raise my daughter. I’ve been employed as everything from a quality control technician in industrial construction, to a mail processing plant manager, to postmaster of a small town. I’ve been to forty nine of the fifty states, as well as many other countries. Traveling will always be a passion I indulge, and something I’ll call upon often in my writing. I come from a long line of story tellers, and will shamelessly exploit a family tree resplendent with colorful and unique characters, both past and present. In short my perspective will reflect the pride and familiarity I have of my Appalachian heritage. My stories will be a reflection of the values I believe we hold dearest here, all embellished with a healthy dose of Southern Appalachian flare.
  • Bobby F. Spriggs Jr

    Why should DEQ respond? They want to keep their jobs so they had better not stir the water.

  • Steve Davidson

    Sadly, it’s not surprising to see elevated levels of toxic chemicals leach from tailing sites decades after the offender is gone. I photograph wilderness landscapes throughout the western United States and occasionally encounter polluted sites, but not often these days. The EPA has done a credible job of cleaning up sites out west and what was common 40 years ago is uncommon today. Even one site, though, is to many.