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DEQ: high zinc level not harmful to New River

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Heavy rains cause runoff from mining waste

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

ABINGDON  — New River water quality will not create any health problems for Southwest Virginia residents, despite a high level of zinc being swept by heavy rains into a tributary in Austinville from mining waste, a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality supervisor tells The Gazette.
During this year’s many downpours, a pile of waste known as tailings from the historic Austinville zinc mine started sending solids and sediment into a small creek known as Indian Branch, which crosses the nearby New River Trail State Park and flows into the New River, according to Allen Newman, regional director for the DEQ out of Abingdon.

This caused quite a bit of talk and a number of complaints from community members, something that reporter Lisa King picked up on and reported in The Washington Times newspaper.
“We didn’t receive a fish-kill kind of report,” Newman said. “We did receive reports of the discharge.”
The problem with Indian Branch became clear to the community members when the water, bearing dissolved limestone, turned the creek a kind of milky color.
“It was well known in the community this has been going on,” Newman said.
A drain under the mine waste pile lets water go under the road and lets it out into the small creek.
George Santucci of the National Committee for the New River has also been keeping tabs on the situation, noting that the heavy rains caused a channel meant to divert water away from the creek to fail.
“This added extremely high levels of total suspended solids (TSS) including zinc into Indian Creek,” he wrote in an email message to The Gazette about what he’s learned.
This channel used to take the water flowing from the pile into the underground mine, Newman said. DEQ officials believe that has changed within the last couple years, but are not sure why.
Pollution going into the New River is a potential problem for Wythe and Carroll counties because the New River Regional Water Authority has its water intake in Austinville, close by Indian Branch. However, Newman said that the intake is upriver from the tributary.
Though DEQ sampling confirms that the levels of zinc taken about two weeks ago at Indian Branch was 880 micrograms per liter, far above the 120 micrograms safe limit imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, other samples taken in the New River suggest that the waterway was minimally affected, Newman added.
DEQ tested water taken from the river at the Austinville Road bridge and found only 65 micrograms of zinc in the water. Downstream at U.S. 52, the zinc level was only 63, he said.
“We expect those numbers to even decline as we move forward with this,” Newman told The Gazette. “Between last week and this week the water in the under drain has cleared up. As far as we know, there’s been no excess of zinc in the New River.”
The good thing about all the rain and the river being high is that the increased volume of water in the New probably diluted the impact of the zinc, Newman indicated. “There’s huge quantities of water in the river as compared to this discharge.”
This is a first for this mining waste pile, which has already been under remediation efforts for years, the DEQ supervisor said. The pile has existed back to the 1930s.
“We’ve never had an issue with the pile,” Newman said.
DEQ officials have been joined in emergency remediation efforts by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; as well as land owner Dixon Lumber and the Austinville Limestone Company, according to Newman and Santucci.
These parties have been working on this issue daily since it came to their attention, the DEQ supervisor said.
Emergency response is now giving way to longer-term planning to continue to return the pile to its natural state, Newman said.
“The remediation plan will focus on repairing the under drain, re-establishing the diversion channel, and reseeding/establishing vegetation,” Santucci reported.  “NCNR agrees that this is the best way to remedy the current situation.”
NCNR will monitor the progress to ensure that this happens. “DEQ has stated that this project is the highest priority within the southwest region of the state.”
“We want to protect the river, no question,” Newman said.