Point of View

Years go by, things go wrong, toxins remain in NC

February 10, 2014 

A long-closed copper mine in Ashe County, N.C.

COURTESY OF ERIC JOHNSON

In Ashe County, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, stands the former copper-mining capital of America.

The place isn’t much to look at – a barren, bulldozed plateau where a mountainside should be. A welter of bright-red signs from the Environmental Protection Agency warns trespassers away from the rust-colored ground.

But in the 1870s, Ore Knob was a genuine boomtown, employing some 700 people pulling ore from the mountains of North Carolina and shipping it to processors as far away as Boston and Baltimore. It was a dirty business, financed by out-of-state speculators paying low wages to imported workers.

Ashe County’s industrial flowering was short-lived. The original operation at Ore Knob closed by the 1880s, and small-scale mining flickered rarely and briefly until 1962, when the mine was abandoned for good.

But the impact of the mine lives on. Today, an ever-widening swath of groundwater – the water local residents draw from their wells – is laced with a foul blend of copper, zinc, iron, arsenic and mercury.

The EPA has been working to clean up the site since 2008, but it’s not optimistic about the water. The agency has been trucking bottled water to nearby homes and installing special filtration systems on household wells. Local homeowners have complained that their properties are worthless, unsellable because of the contaminated water.


Ore Knob isn’t getting much attention, but other incidents are. In the past month, we’ve seen a massive leak of mining chemicals into the municipal water supply of Charleston, W.Va., and a decayed drainage system that spilled swirling plumes of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River.

No one meant for that to happen. We are mostly past the era when pollutants were blatantly and callously dumped into lakes and rivers.

But things go wrong. Pipes burst, tanks corrode, ground shifts, water seeps and flows. We know this, of course, but we’re flawed creatures, prone to delusions of control and notoriously bad at considering time’s long horizon.

“Pat McCrory believes North Carolina can create much-needed jobs that will help fuel North Carolina’s economic recovery by safely and aggressively pursuing an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy plan,” says the governor’s campaign website. “He is committed to protecting our mountains, beaches, barrier islands and water supply by utilizing technology and effective pollution prevention programs.”

The governor no doubt believes that. I trust he loves the mountains and the beaches – to say nothing of the Piedmont’s tap water – as much as the next Tar Heel. I imagine the fracking companies eyeing North Carolina believe in their ability to manage their toxic byproducts, just as Duke believed in its ability to manage piles of ash next to a river of drinking water.

But no matter how earnest we wish it, an energy policy cannot be both safe and aggressive. The finest technology devised by man hasn’t stopped pipes from cracking or ponds from overflowing.

There is only one way to prevent our fair state from being sullied by fracking waste: Don’t create the waste. We can promise ourselves vigilance and technological salvation – an “all-of-the-above” energy policy – but time has a way of mocking our best intentions.

It’s been more than a century since Ashe County was a copper-mining powerhouse. The jobs and the boomtown are gone and forgotten, but the toxic ground will be with us for a long time yet.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill.

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