Strafford Ponders Future of Copper Mine Site

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It’s taken more than a decade, but the Superfund clean-up of an abandoned copper mine in South Strafford is almost finished.

The EPA has sealed 45 acres of tailings-which are finely ground sulfide ore-that had been leaching into local waterways.

Now it’s up to the town and private landowners to decide what to do with the site. 

If you drive too fast through the village of Strafford on Route 132, you could easily bypass a copper-colored chunk of American history.

Copper deposits were found at the Elizabeth site as early as 1793, and the mine operated until 1958, when it was abandoned because extraction became too costly. Now there are hillocks of rust-colored bits of rock and a gigantic 45 acre plateau covered with plastic and two feet of topsoil.

John Freitag, the facilities manager for the local elementary school, has been monitoring the clean-up progress, often with a critical eye, for years. He’d like to see signs, hiking paths, and interpretive exhibits spring up here.

"You could walk around and get a sense of, this went on here, this went on there, this is how this all fit, this is how the people would use the hillside to make the product we were looking at, this is how it was done environmentally, this is how it occurred naturally," said Freitag on a recent visit to the site.

Freitag believes nature would have remediated some of what the EPA spent almost $65 million to clean up, so he questions that expenditure. The EPA official in charge of the clean-up, Ed Hathaway, says it was absolutely necessary to keep sulfuric acid out of water supplies. But he agrees with Freitag that turning the site into an interpretive park is one good idea.

"It’s a 45 acre area of which a significant amount is a fairly flat open area…there’s not a lot of  that in Vermont," Hathaway noted. "So… you could look at anything from solar development to recreational fields or passive recreation. Or, you know if property owners want to keep it that way, it could stay the way it is right now."

The 1,400-acre mine site is split among several private owners, but responsibility for its maintenance after the EPA leaves will fall to Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources

There are deep cuts in the land that were made to remove copper. They’ve now filled up with water, and trespassers have been swimming there, raising liability issues. The town of Strafford also wants a say in re-use.  And of course any negotiations  will have to include property owners. So it’s not clear yet who would pay for new signs and  security fences-or even, as one resident has suggested, a solar array?

Steve Willbanks, a Strafford selectman, says public meetings are now being held to discuss how to bring green energy and also visitors to what used to be an eyesore.

"We already have some things in town they might find interesting. So it might make the town something of a magnet for tourism more so than it is at the moment," Willbanks said.

Willbanks says one big challenge will be to figure out who would be liable for any injuries if the site were to become public. He says the current property owners were not responsible for the pollution, and will need to negotiate any agreements for its re-use.

Willbanks would like to find a land trust willing to help the town buy and manage the site, but so far none has been identified.

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