Drop by drop 

Concerns over mining site in Hot Springs.

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.


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