The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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September 22, 2012

Oronogo Circle to be repository for Jasper County waste

ORONOGO, Mo. — As big as it is, the Oronogo Circle might not be big enough to hold all the mining waste generated by cleaning up the county.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the roughly 12-acre pit, which is up to 300 feet deep in some places, will hold approximately 4 million cubic yards of mining waste.

“We have 7 million cubic yards of waste across the county that needs to be hauled somewhere,’’ said Mark Doolan, project manager for the Jasper County Superfund Site. “There is more than enough waste to completely fill the pit.’’

The EPA, which has completed the cleanup of 1,500 acres in the Webb City-Carterville area, south of Oronogo, is using mine openings as repositories for the waste rock, which is known locally as chat. The waste is contaminated with heavy metals — lead, zinc and cadmium — that can be hazardous to human health and the environment.

Once cleared, the scarred land can then be used for commercial purposes and, in some cases, for residential development.

Doolan said filling the pits is not only cost effective, but practical.

“It is more beneficial to the community as a whole to do it this way,’’ he said. “We’ll have one repository instead of building landfills all over Jasper County. When you do that, you encumber the land and people can’t develop it.’’

One open pit north of Oronogo at the Snap Mine was not filled.

“We did not fill the Snap Mine because we did not have the volume nearby to fill it up,’’ he said. “We have filled virtually every other pit we have encountered.’’

Blue Tee

The Blue Tee Corp., a metals company, has been identified by the EPA as the potentially responsible party for the mine-waste contamination associated with the Oronogo Circle mine. The company has entered into a consent decree with the EPA to clean up the site, according to Gary Uphoff, with Environmental Management Services, of Fort Collins, Colo.

Uphoff, who represents Blue Tee in its dealing with the EPA, said Blue Tee entered into an agreement with John and Regina Mueller, owners of the Oronogo Circle, which became a diver-training site that operated for years in the water-filled pit.

“We did not buy his business. We compensated him for the loss of his business and to allow us to dispose of waste in the pit,’’ said Uphoff. “They will retain ownership of the property when it is finished.’’

Earth-moving work at the site began last week. Uphoff said it will take four to six weeks for Blue Tee to complete its work. After that, the EPA will hire a contractor to haul waste to the site. Doolan said Blue Tee will fill about half of the pit.

Doolan said there are deed restrictions on properties with mine waste repositories.

“You cannot put in shallow wells and you cannot build a residential dwelling, but the property is available for commercial development,’’ he said.

Water threat?

Filling the pits may be cost effective and practical, but is it environmentally safe to put hazardous materials into a water-filled pit? That’s a question Stanley Walker, a former Oronogo resident who now lives in Carthage, would like answered.

“I grew up over there and my grandfather worked there,’’ Walker said. “It’s being filled in with what is considered hazardous waste from other mining sites. There are billions of gallons of water in that pit that come from underground sources.

“Is that hazardous waste going to contaminate that water source? It does not make any sense to me. The Oronogo Circle is massive. For me, it’s like pouring poison into a water source. That’s not rain water in there.’’

Walker said he lived in Oronogo for 18 years and that the pit’s water level was relatively constant, regardless of whether it was a wet or dry year.

“Center Creek, which is south of Oronogo, is contaminated with heavy metals. We don’t need any more contamination,’’ he said.

The EPA had many of the same questions before it would give a green light to the disposal of mine wastes in open pits.

WACO TEST

In 2006, the EPA, in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, placed 58,500 cubic yards of mine waste into a mine pit near Waco, then covered it with a soil and clay cap. Three monitoring wells were drilled around the pit to check for changes in groundwater quality.

Doolan said the placement of the waste into the pit caused a short-term release of zinc into the groundwater. After 30 to 60 days, the release had diminished to a negligible amount, he said.

Doolan said the spike was not significant in terms of overall groundwater quality since much of the upper aquifer in the region is already contaminated with heavy metals. Water in the Oronogo Circle comes from the upper aquifer.

Contamination of the upper aquifer from decades of mining in the region has forced the EPA to check thousands of private wells across the area for heavy metals. Where it has been found, owners have been given bottled water to drink while steps were taken to either drill deeper wells to a lower aquifer for those affected homeowners or to hook them up to a public water system.

The Waco study was done to determine whether there was a significant impact on groundwater quality and whether that impact could influence surface waters. The study showed no significant impact on either. Doolan also said the removal of the mining waste from the surface eliminates contaminated runoff into local streams and rivers.

Doolan said the Waco pit was chosen because rainwater runoff flowed into the pit. The water in the pit would rise several feet after a storm, indicating that it was recharging the groundwater around it. Doolan characterized the Waco project as “a worst-case study for the entire site.’’

Cleanup welcomed

Still, Bob Parrish, the mayor of Oronogo, will be monitoring the quality of water in the city’s three wells. The wells draw water from a deep aquifer that is separated from the upper aquifer by a barrier of shale.

“I don’t think there will be any problem,’’ said Parrish. “But we’re monitoring our wells every 30 days.’’

Parrish said the closing of Oronogo Circle could be the biggest thing to happen in that town since Bonnie and Clyde robbed the Farmer and Miners Bank in Oronogo in a shootout on Nov. 30, 1932.

“It’s a mixed reaction. Some people are kind of upset about it. Others look at it as a danger spot that’s existed for years,’’ he said. “There’s no fence around it and they worry about kids getting close to it and drowning in it.’’

Parrish, a former Joplin resident, said he has lived in Oronogo for 36 years.

“I’m not aware of a swimmer drowning in it. But I do know that some divers have drowned in it,’’ he said.  

According to the U.S. Census, Oronogo’s population stood at 700 in 1880 when the town was a full-fledged mining camp. Before that, it was known as Minersville. But that also was the name of another town in Christian County. According to “The History of Jasper County,’’ published in 1912, a meeting was called to pick a new name for the town and that a drunk miner at that meeting said: “Boys, by God, it’s ore or no go.’’

The town’s population in 1900 peaked at 2,073. Twenty years later, it would have 981 people.

Said Parrish: “There were 386 people here when I cam to town in 1976. Now, there’s 2,380 or so. We had 300 water meters in 1990. We’re up to 920 now. That’s more than 600 new homes.’’

Parrish said the residents of the community “seem to be looking forward to seeing it all cleaned up. It’s been an ugly site here for years. Cleaning it up will make it more appealing for people to come over here. It’s like they have to drive through a nuclear-waste site now.’’

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