MAC: Mines and Communities

Land mine? Gore gains benefits from zinc operation

Published by MAC on 2007-03-18

Land mine? Gore gains benefits from zinc operation

By BILL THEOBALD, Gannett News Service

18th March 2007

CARTHAGE — Al Gore has profited from zinc mining that has released millions of pounds of potentially toxic substances near his farmstead, but there is no evidence the mine has caused serious damage to the environment in the area or threatened the health of his neighbors.

Two massive white mountains of leftover rock waste are evidence of three decades of mining that earned Gore $570,000 in royalty payments for the mineral rights to his property.

New owners plan to start mining again later this year, after nearly four years of inactivity. In addition to bringing 250 much-needed jobs to rural middle Tennessee, mine owners will resume paying royalties to some residents who, like Gore, own land adjacent to the mine and lease access to the zinc under their property.

Gore has yet to be approached by the new owner, Strategic Resource Acquisition, said his spokeswoman Kalee Kreider, and he and wife, Tipper, have not decided whether they will renew their lease. It was terminated when the mine closed in 2003.

Last week, Gore sent a letter asking the company to work with Earthworks, a national environmental group, to make sure the operation doesn't damage the environment.

"We would like for you to engage with us in a process to ensure that the mine becomes a global example of environmental best practices," Gore wrote.

Victor Wyprysky, the company's president and chief executive officer, did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

The letter was sent the week after Gannett News Service posed questions to the former vice president about his involvement with the mine.

Previous mine owners released toxic substances into waterways above the allowable levels several times in the eight years before the mine closed.

But state regulators consider those permit violations minor and monitoring reports provide a clean bill of health for the surface water in the area. Community leaders and health officials recall no health problems ever associated with the mining.

But now that the mine is reopening and Gore's status as an environmentalist has grown, some of Gore's neighbors see a conflict between the mining and his moral call for environmental activism.

"Mining is not exactly synonymous with being green, is it?" said John Mullins, who lives in nearby Cookeville. A conservative, Mullins welcomes the resumption of mining for the benefits it will bring the community. But he says Gore's view that global warming is a certainty is arrogant and that by being connected to mining, Gore is not "walking the walk."

At the same time, the Caney Fork Watershed Association, which works to conserve and improve the waterways near the mine, has heard no concerns from its members about the mine's reopening.

"The operation has a record of vigilance in not operating to harm the environment, and we certainly hope that the renewed operation will maintain this record," John Harwood, with the association, said in a written response to questions. "It is important that this waste material ... be permanently secured from causing environmental contamination."

And Earthworks president and chief executive Stephen D'Esposito said Gore's involvement with mining doesn't bother him "in any way, shape or form."

"We are going to have mining. The question is doing it in the right place and the right way," said D'Esposito, who has not studied the Carthage mines.

Al Gore Jr.'s involvement in mining can be traced to Sept. 22, 1973.

Former Sen. Albert Gore Sr. bought about 88 acres along the Caney Fork River from Occidental Minerals, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, for $160,000. Included in the deal was the subsurface area. The rights to the minerals below ground were then leased back to Occidental.

On the same day, Gore Sr. sold the land and subsurface area to his 25-year-son and daughter-in-law for $140,000. The mineral lease to Occidental was put in their names.

Kreider said the terms of the 30-year agreement provided the Gores "no legal recourse" even if they had wanted to cancel it. She said they never considered selling the land.

The lease paid them $20,000 a year in 27 years and $10,000 per year in three years, Kreider said.

The Gores, she said, would not comment on whether they tried to pursue legal action to void the lease. "There is a certain zone of privacy once people go into private life."

She said the lease has to be viewed in a "1973 context, not a 2007 context."

"There was a different environmental sensibility about all sorts of things," she said.

The mine is a complex of several interconnected sites known as the Gordonsville Mine and Mill, the Cumberland Mine and the Elmwood Mine, which is the closest to Gore's property. In addition, previous mine owners operated a refining plant in Clarksville.

Through the years, mining operations expanded as the facilities went through several ownership and name changes. Horizontal shafts, called drifts, extend under the Gore property, Kreider said, although the Gores don't know their number and location.

By 1983, the Elmwood-Gordonsville complex was the largest zinc-producing mine in the country and Tennessee the largest zinc-producing state. The Elmwood-Gordonsville mine kept the title every year until 1990, except for 1984.

Zinc is used primarily to protect steel from corrosion. Other metals released during the mining process — such as lead, mercury and copper — are necessary to a modern economy. But human exposure to high levels of these metals can cause health problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency began reporting toxic releases from metal mining operations for the first time in 1998. The mining industry objected to being included in the reports because of the sheer size of the emission numbers and the fact that much of what is reported is the naturally occurring substance — in this case zinc — that is being mined.

In the five-year period from 1998-2003, before the mines were shuttered, 16.6 million pounds of toxic substances were released into the air, water and land at the Gordonsville site, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory data, and another 2.6 million pounds at the Cumberland site. Most of that was the zinc pulled from ground during mining.

In its last year of full operation in 2002, the Gordonsville-Cumberland mines ranked 22nd among all metal mining operations in the U.S., with about 4.1 million pounds of toxic releases. The top releasing mine, Red Dog Mine in Alaska, emitted about 482 million pounds that year. In 2002, Smith County ranked 39th out of more than 3,000 U.S. counties for lead compound releases and 21st for cadmium releases, according to tallies by Scorecard, a Web site run by environmentalists that compiles federal data.

Even Gore noted in his letter that, according to Scorecard, "pollution releases from the mine in 2002 placed it among the 'dirtiest/worst facilities' in the U.S."

How much was released in the previous quarter century when the mines were in their heyday is unknown.

The Clarksville processing plant emitted more than 26 million pounds of pollutants in 2004, ranking Montgomery County 21st among all U.S. counties for the amount of toxic releases discharged into the environment.

While all the sites have systems in place to protect nearby rivers and streams, the state discharge permit records for the Carthage area mines show several examples in recent years of releases of toxic substances into waterways above the allowable levels set under the federal Clean Water Act. The majority of samples taken found acceptable levels of the various substances being tested.

Because the company worked to correct the problem, state officials said the department did not take tougher action such as a fine. The other four violations, between January 1998 and August 2000, were considered minor, officials said. Two other notices of violation were issued in 1997 for zinc limit violations at a nearby discharge point.

Two other zinc violations were found in samples in 2003; one for high levels of solids that year and in 2004; and one for copper in a 2003 sample.

"We think those violations (are) considered minor," said Paul Schmierbach, environmental program manager for the state's Division of Water Pollution Control.

The most recent permit for the Clarksville plant includes no permit violations. But very high zinc levels were found in many samples taken from 2001-2005 at two sites where storm water flowed into a tributary of the Cumberland River. The Clarksville permit did not set limits for storm water runoff so those were not counted as violations.

Test samples taken of the surface water in the Caney Fork and Cumberland rivers near the mine sites in recent years show no readings of dangerous substances above the legal limits.

"I don't see anything here that indicates a water quality issue," said Greg Denton, manager of the planning and standards section in the Division of Water Pollution Control, after reviewing testing data compiled by Gannett News Service.

And state and county health officials, along with community leaders, can recall no reports of unusual health problems in the area.

At the same time, the state counts the two water systems that draw from the Caney Fork and Cumberland downstream from the mines as highly susceptible for contamination, according to the Tennessee Source Water Assessment Report issued in August 2003, the most recent report done.

That is in part because of the mines and other facilities that discharge into the rivers, according to the report. The report scored nearly half of the state's 457 community water sources as having "high susceptibility" for contamination.

In addition, state environmental officials said in a 2006 report that Tennessee needs a more accurate picture of the health of its underground water supply.

According to the report, the state:

— Has not done a systematic statewide study of its aquifers.

— Requires that public water systems sample only the treated water they provide to customers, not raw ground water samples.

— Does not require routine sampling of private wells and springs.

Smith Utility District, one of the two water treatment plants in the area, draws from the Caney Fork, which Gore used as a backdrop in his Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." The other, Carthage Water System, takes its water from the Cumberland.

Only a few violations of safe drinking water regulations have been found in recent years during tests at the Smith, Carthage, and other water systems in the area. Most are monitoring violations and the only health-related ones are for high levels of the chemicals used to disinfect the water.

Marcus Kemp, plant and distribution superintendent for the Smith Utility District plant, said he never had problems with discharges from the mines during his 28 years with the district, nor has Don Taylor, who runs the Carthage water plant.

Still, Kemp is concerned about what will happen when the new owners pump out the water that has filled the mine since it was shut down.

"That is going to be a different issue," Kemp said of the restart of mining. "Water went into all the cracks and crevices."

Community leaders see no problem with Gore, or the hundreds of other landowners in the area, reaping the benefits of owning property rich in zinc. In 2002, a previous mine owner held 355 leases in the area, totaling 16,339 acres, or more than 25.5 square miles.

"I don't think he would want to stand in the way of economic development of a community," said Michael Nesbitt, mayor of Smith County, where the mines are located.

Nesbitt and others are excited about the jobs the mine will create for some of the county's nearly 19,000 people whose per capita personal income was below the state's in 2003, the most recent county data available.

Strategic Resource Acquisition, the Canadian company that will operate under the name Mid-Tennessee Zinc, estimates it will take a year to re-activate the mines. Mining itself should begin in the third quarter of this year, said Wyprysky, the CEO. The mill should begin putting out ore ready for shipping to refining plants in the first quarter of 2008.

In an interview prior to Gore's letter being sent, Wyprysky declined a request for a tour of the mining sites and declined to comment on their connection to Gore. He said the company was still in the process of negotiating lease agreements with the surrounding property owners.

The Gores won't speculate on whether they will refuse to renew their lease if the new owners don't follow their request to work with the environmental group, Kreider said. They do plan, she said, to encourage their neighbors to join their effort.

Also to be decided is what to do about the leases on two parcels owned by Albert Gore Sr., which Gore eventually will inherit when his parents' estates are settled.

The company said the mine already has produced 2.6 billion pounds of zinc metal, and still contains 26 million tons of zinc material containing 3.25percent zinc.

That means that mining there could continue for years, creating an ongoing environmental threat to Gore and his neighbors in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee.

"The real protection," said Harwood of the Caney Fork Watershed Association, "lies in the good faith and diligence of the mine operators, and of the state regulators."

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