By Alicia Claire Lloyd
Several sinkholes have appeared near the West Fork Black River in Reynolds County in southeastern Missouri beginning in spring of 2014 with consequences for the river and the surrounding land. As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,the sinkholes developed above an underground lead mine operated by the Doe Run Company. The first two of six known sinkholes, discovered near the toe of the mine’s main tailings dam, were between 30 and 60 feet in diameter and about 18 feet deep.
According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration report, these sinkhole developed shortly after Doe Run removed some of the pillars supporting the mine roof in the vicinity of an unused ventilation shaft, causing the roof to collapse and the ground above the mine to subside. The roof collapse and associated subsidence also led to the inflow of thousands of gallons of water per minute from the West Fork Black River into the mine and to an increase in the discharge of contaminants into the river as the company pumped the water out of the mine.
In an effort to stop the mine flooding, prevent additional contamination of the river, and halt further sinkhole development, in June 2014, Doe Run applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an emergency permit – issued without notice to the public – which allowed Doe Run to divert the flow of the West Fork Black River into an artificially constructed channel temporarily. The artificial channel is lined with rock and black geotextile material and is nearly 1,300 feet long. The state certified that the project would not adversely impact water quality on June 25, 2014.
It now appears that Doe Run plans to make the river diversion permanent. An August 26, 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article noted that Doe Run and the Corps were “in talks” to see about making the diversion permanent but that “nothing official” had been filed. MCE has since obtained documents through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) including an application, dated September 3, 2015, requesting the “permanent use of the West Fork Diversion.” The Corps’ file also includes a letter, dated August 10, 2015, by Golder (Doe Run’s consultant) explaining Doe Run’s rationale for wanting to make the diversion permanent. The Corps, however, has refused to release the contents of this letter. MCE has appealed this denial.
Local residents have been understandably alarmed by the sinkholes, one of which threatens the historic West Fork Sutterfield Cemetery. In addition, Doe Run’s diversion of the West Fork Black River from its natural banks has harmed the river’s ecology, destroyed aquatic communities, and caused the famed “Granddaddy” swimming hole enjoyed by locals and visitors alike to dry up. In addition, Reynolds County residents have already experienced more than their share of environmental devastation. Ten years ago, the nearby Taum Sauk Reservoir collapsed, leading to significant damage in the East Fork Black River and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park.
MCE believes that Doe Run should have conservatively evaluated the likelihood of subsidence and inundation by the West Fork Black River before mining the pillars. This oversight has resulted in the destruction of a significant stretch of this already-threatened river ecosystem and created numerous sinkholes. The West Black Fork River is already an impaired waterway. It is listed on the state 303(d) list of impaired waters for lead and nickel due to previous mining activities. Although MCE has obtained Doe Run’s proposed mitigation plan for the temporary diversion, the plan does not make up for the long-term consequences of the river’s permanent diversion and channelization.
MCE will submit formal public comments to the Corps of Engineers advocating for robust and substantial mitigation efforts to partially make up for the environmental destruction the mining operation and river diversion have caused in Reynolds County, Missouri. Stay tuned for updates as we watchdog the developments around this environmental calamity and hope for responsible and aggressive mitigation efforts to partially offset the aquatic impacts of this over-zealous mining operation.