You don't have to be a scientist to know that there's something wrong with Indian Springs Creek near Hot Springs.
Even in the middle of a weeks-long drought, the small creek was flowing, gurgling out from under a boulder dike that lies directly below a 10-story-high pile of mine waste. In the still pools, the water there is a shade lighter than dried blood, streaked with a metallic, rainbow sheen. The surface of the water has congealed to the point that it looks like rubber; thick enough that ants can be seen scurrying around on top. In the water itself, there is nothing alive. Stirred with a stick, the surface breaks up like sodden tissue paper. Less than a mile from there, the creek empties into Lake Catherine, where people swim and fish. That flows into the Ouachita River, where Arkadelphia gets its drinking water.
The owner of the mine, Umetco Minerals Corporation, has petitioned the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission to remove the drinking-water designation on nearby Wilson Creek, and allow the site to discharge roughly four times more chlorides and total dissolved solids than would normally be allowed, and 13 times more sulfates. There is currently no permit for discharges into Indian Springs Creek. Last month, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality tested the water in streams around the site, found the discharge levels to be out of compliance, and has demanded action from Umetco. Still, both Umetco and the ADEQ say the water there is safe.
In the mid-1960s, Union Carbide started mining vanadium at the site, which lies on Malvern Avenue just outside the Hot Springs city limits. Vanadium is a metallic element added to steel to make it stronger and more corrosion resistant. The mine shut down in the 1980s. Though the primary risk at active vanadium mines is from inhalation of the toxic dust, the aftereffects of vanadium mining can be just as messy. Studies on groundwater near other vanadium mines have found elevated levels of arsenic, lead, heavy metals and other chemicals.
Umetco has been working to reclaim the 500-acre site for the past 15 years, covering the vast pile of mining spoil with clay, topsoil and vegetation to keep rainwater from percolating through. But there is apparently no physical barrier between the earth and the bottom of the waste pile, and the area is riddled with underground springs. Umetco says that runoff water from the site is pumped up to nearby Wilson Creek for treatment before being discharged, but a large pump in a near-overflowing concrete catch basin near Indian Springs Creek at the base of the waste pile was not running the day we visited, and those familiar with the site say it never runs as far as they know.
Hot Springs resident Denise Parkinson is worried. Parkinson, who has long been interested in environmental causes, began researching the site after being asked to do so by a friend who was a cancer survivor. "The more I heard about it, the more freaked out I got. Then, in the middle of doing all this research, here comes the Hungarian toxic sludge flood, and it looks exactly like what is going on up on the hillside," Parkinson said, referring to a recent incident in which several people were killed and 16 square miles of countryside in Hungary was inundated with caustic red sludge after a dam collapsed at a mine.
Lowell Price owns a home on Lake Catherine. He moved there in 1989, and started hearing rumors of pollution from the Umetco site soon after. Friends of his have said they break out in a rash every time they get the water from Lake Catherine on their skin. An avid fisherman, Price worries about eating fish taken from the lake, and said he's scared to let his kids and grandchildren swim there.
"What really burns me up is the fact that ADEQ has let us down," Price said. "I think they've sold us down the river. It's their responsibility to see that the water stays pure."
Those downstream are concerned as well. Dorinda Suitor, utilities manager of the water and sewer system in Arkadelphia, which gets its drinking water from the Ouachita River, lodged a letter of concern with the ADEQ in September over the proposed change to the Water Quality Standards for Wilson Creek. Suitor asked ADEQ administrators to consider what their decision would be if their own drinking water came from a river downstream from the Umetco site. "Common sense does not allow me to conceive of a business asking for permit limits to be expanded simply because they can't meet them without spending money," Suitor wrote. "In good faith, I cannot imagine a business asking the Commission to lower Stream Standards so that they can pollute."
Mary Draves is a spokesperson for Dow Chemical Company, which holds Umetco as a subsidiary. In an emailed response, she said several times that she doesn't know exactly what a reporter saw during our visit to Indian Springs Creek and thus can't comment on the conditions we observed. Nonetheless, she insists that the water there "is not compromised."
Draves said Umetco has spent approximately $40 million on reclamation efforts so far. She called the site "typical of mining sites in this region," and said that the request to change the water quality standards for the Umetco site runoff is "not unusual." "The ADEQ has granted numerous site specific requests in Arkansas at other permitted sites if those requests meet the appropriate guidelines," she wrote.
The ADEQ took samples from the Umetco site in October, including samples from Wilson Creek and Indian Springs Creek. In a Nov. 10 letter to Umetco remediation leader Lucius Boudreax, the ADEQ said that their testing found that the level of sulfates in a sample taken at Wilson Creek stood at 264 milligrams per liter, against the existing daily permit limit of 28.5 milligrams per liter, while total dissolved solids were 467 milligrams per liter, against a permitted maximum daily concentration of 259.5 milligrams per liter. These permit limits are already higher than that allowed in the region. Umetco has petitioned the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission to change those standards dramatically — to allow for 260 mg per liter for sulfates and 543 mg per liter for TDS.
The ADEQ letter instructs Umetco to correct the problem as soon as possible, and it was to submit a written response by this week. ADEQ says fines may be pending. Umetco currently doesn't have a permit to discharge anything into Indian Springs Creek.
Teresa Marks, director of ADEQ, said that in the past, Umetco has done its own monitoring and testing at the site, and sends it to ADEQ on a monthly basis. While Marks agreed that some might see that as a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, she said it is an arrangement that's necessary. "Unfortunately we just don't have the resources to go out and do routine testing on all the facilities that we have permitted," Marks said. "Neither does any other state in the nation." The last time the agency did its own testing at the Umetco site prior to last month's round was April 2008.
Marks said the ADEQ is concerned about the still-pending proposal to remove the drinking water designation for Wilson Creek, and will be responding to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission about those concerns. "As a matter of public policy, we would like to not see any of the designated uses degraded on any of our waterways," Marks said. "Now sometimes with development and growth, that may have to take place. But our concern is that if a stream is capable of meeting a designated use that we not remove that use to allow a degradation."
While Indian Springs Creek is devoid of life due to contamination, and Marks said it probably wouldn't be safe to drink due to a "laxative effect" caused by the heavy metal content, she believes it isn't a danger to the public. She said the red color of the water and the skin on top is caused by high levels of iron oxide which she said may be "a naturally occurring phenomenon." ADEQ test results showed the levels of iron in the creek at 47 milligrams per liter. The EPA standard for drinking water is .3 milligrams per liter. Marks said Indian Springs Creek isn't big enough to alter the water quality in Lake Catherine.
"We're talking about a small amount of water," Marks said. "So by the time it actually makes it to Wilson Creek (where it is treated) and goes down to Lake Catherine, it's not going to have a significant impact on Lake Catherine." ADEQ will be testing the lake water soon, but Marks said she feels comfortable that the water coming from the Umetco site is safe. "I can say that I am confident that once the water leaves the Umetco premises, it's generally not going to pose a danger to the public," Marks said.