JEFFERSON —Even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to move forward with the EPA Ore Knob Mine Waterline Project, Jefferson Aldermen continue to have concerns about the possible consequences it could have for the town in the future.
The board voiced these concerns during their board meeting on Monday, Oct. 26 with Public Works Director Tim Church present.
Fifteen residents are currently affected by water contamination in the Ore Knob Mine community with nearly 50 residents located in a “zone of concern.”
The tainted water comes directly from copper mining that occurred at the Ore Knob Mine from the 1850’s to 1962. The EPA and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources began studying the Ore Knob Mine in May of 2006 and placed it on the “National Priorities List” in 2009 because of acidic compounds found in surface water.
From April 2010 to June 2012, the EPA sampled 79 potable water sources including 64 private wells and 15 springs. The EPA has been providing bottled water for residents and has installed or upgraded 11 whole house treatment systems since discovering the water issue.
The idea of the Waterline Project was first brought up in June of 2014 at an Ashe County Planing Board meeting where it was estimated that the project could potentially be started in 2016.
EPA Project Manager Loften Carr told the board on Sept. 28 that the EPA completed an engineering evaluation cost analysis this past February to look for different options for residents with drinking water contamination and decided that building a waterline was the best solution.
Carr stated that the waterline is estimated to cost $9-14 million.
Although funding to build the waterline will not cost anything to the town of Jefferson or Ashe County, the town will be responsible for maintenance costs after the EPA officially turns the waterline over to them. Aldermen worry future maintenance could become a big cost for the town.
Alderman Charles Caudill asked Church approximately how long it would be until the town would have to replace major water pumps, something the town would be required to pay for.
“It’ll be a lot of time before you have any major maintenance expenses on those,” Church said. “The small stuff causes more issues.”
According to Church, the major concern for the town would be the maintenance on service lines going directly to the homes and meter services.
“That’s typically where we have the most maintenance issues in town,” Church said.
Carr previously that the waterline could have a positive impact on the town, stating that anyone in the future who wants to hook up to the new waterline would become a customer of the town of Jefferson.
“It could be a really be a good thing for the town if a lot of those folks decide they’d like to get town water,” Caudill said.
But Caudill isn’t sure if people in the area would be willing to pay for a monthly water bill that could average around $60 per month.
“When you’ve never paid for water, then it’s hard to take,” Caudill said.
Aldermen are also concerned that keeping the affected residents on the waterline who have no obligation to do so could cause complications for the town in the future.
According to Alderman Mark Johnston, if those residents don’t stay on, there should be a recourse of action.
“If they (the EPA) sign up 15 and 15 are on it, then it goes to five, they need to pay us for 15,” Johnston said.
Church said he and Jefferson Town Manager Cathy Howell discussed the possibility of securing a similar agreement with the EPA prior to entering into the project.
“If this thing turns into a white elephant for us and we have a problem where we’re going to have 15 homes on a line and seven of them abandon us, we need some kind of recourse,” Church said.
Church said his biggest concern is getting the waterline across the river.
“That’s going to be cumbersome either way you go,” Church said, “whether they tie it to the bridge or try to go under the river.”
Johnston believes that the best solution would be to keep the waterline above ground, making maintenance easier.
“If it breaks under the water, how do you ever detect that you’re losing water? You’ll never know it,” Johnston said. “At least if it’s above ground and you see it dripping, you know you’re losing water.”
Church estimates that a typical home uses approximately 100 gallons a day — totalling 1,500 gallons per day for all 15 affected homes, a small amount compared to the cost to build the waterline.
“It’s hard to swallow,” Church said.
According to Church, purchasing the affected properties would be more reasonable as it would cost considerably less than the waterline.
Moving the waterline forward
Carr previously said that the EPA received $9.3 million in funding to design and construct the waterline project this past June. Within a month of receiving the funding, the EPA chose the US Army Corps of Engineers who is currently designing bid specifications for the waterline project.
Although the town hasn’t yet seen any concrete plans for the waterline, Church believes there will be some flexibility.
“I think we kind of have a gentlemen’s agreement with Loften based on my conversations with him that we’ll have a lot of latitude as far as the design concept,” Church said.
Caudill asked Church to continue to look into the board’s concerns.
“I don’t want to make it seem worse than what it is, but I want to make sure that we take care of our folks here in Jefferson, that’s my concern,” Caudill said.
Hannah Myers can be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cmedia_hmyers.