Aquatic assessment of the Pike Hill Copper Mine Superfund site, Corinth, Vermont

Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5288

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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The Pike Hill Copper Mine Superfund site in Corinth, Orange County, Vermont, includes the Eureka, Union, and Smith mines along with areas of downstream aquatic ecosystem impairment. The site was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) National Priorities List in 2004. The mines, which operated from about 1847 to 1919, contain underground workings, foundations from historical structures, several waste-rock piles, and some flotation tailings. The mine site is drained to the northeast by Pike Hill Brook, which includes several wetland areas, and to the southeast by an unnamed tributary that flows to the south and enters Cookville Brook. Both brooks eventually drain into the Waits River, which flows into the Connecticut River. The aquatic ecosystem at the site was assessed using a variety of approaches that investigated surface-water quality, sediment quality, and various ecological indicators of stream-ecosystem health. The degradation of surface-water quality is caused by elevated concentrations of copper, and to a lesser extent cadmium, with localized effects caused by aluminum, iron, and zinc. Copper concentrations in surface waters reached or exceeded the USEPA national recommended chronic water-quality criteria for the protection of aquatic life in all of the Pike Hill Brook sampling locations except for the location farthest downstream, in half of the locations sampled in the tributary to Cookville Brook, and in about half of the locations in one wetland area located in Pike Hill Brook. Most of these same locations also contained concentrations of cadmium that exceeded the chronic water-quality criteria. In contrast, surface waters at background sampling locations were below these criteria for copper and cadmium. Comparison of hardness-based and Biotic Ligand Model (BLM)-based criteria for copper yields similar results with respect to the extent or number of stations impaired for surface waters in the affected area. However, the BLM-based criteria are commonly lower values than the hardness-based criteria and thus suggest a greater degree or magnitude of impairment at the sampling locations. The riffle-habitat benthic invertebrate richness and abundance data correlate strongly with the extent of impact based on water quality for both brooks. Similarly, the fish community assessments document degraded conditions throughout most of Pike Hill Brook, whereas the data for the tributary to Cookville Brook suggest less degradation to this brook. The sediment environment shows similar extents of impairment to the surface-water environment, with most sampling locations in Pike Hill Brook, including the wetland areas, and the tributary to Cookville Brook affected. Sediment impairment is caused by elevated copper concentrations, although localized degradation due to elevated cadmium and zinc concentrations was documented on the basis of exceedances of probable effects concentrations (PECs). In contrast to impairment determined by exceedances of PECs, equilibrium-partitioning sediment benchmarks (based on simultaneously extracted metals, acid volatile sulfides, and total organic carbon) predict no toxic effects in sediments at the background locations and uncertain toxic effects throughout Pike Hill Brook and the tributary to Cookville Brook, with the exception of the most downstream Cookville Brook location, which indicated no toxic effects. Acute laboratory toxicity testing using the amphipod Hyalella azteca and the midge Chironomus dilutus on pore waters extracted from sediment in situ indicate impairment (based on tests with H. azteca) at only one location in Pike Hill Brook and no impairment in the tributary to Cookville Brook. Chronic laboratory sediment toxicity testing using H. azteca and C. dilutus indicated toxicity in Pike Hill Brook at several locations in the lower reach and two locations in the tributary to Cookville Brook. Toxicity was not indicated for either species in sediment from the most acidic metal-rich location, likely due to the low lability of copper in that sediment, as indicated by a low proportion of extractable copper (simultaneously extracted metal (SEM) copper only 5 percent of total copper) and due to the flushing of acidic metal-rich pore water from experimental chambers as overlying test water was introduced before and replaced periodically during the toxicity tests. Depositional habitat invertebrate richness and abundance data generally agreed with the results of toxicity tests and with the extent of impact in the watersheds on the basis of sediment and pore waters. The information was used to develop an overall assessment of the impact of mine drainage on the aquatic system downstream from the Pike Hill copper mines. Most of Pike Hill Brook, including several wetland areas that are all downstream from the Eureka and Union mines, was found to be impaired on the basis of water-quality data and biological assessments of fish or benthic invertebrate communities. In contrast, only one location in the tributary to Cookville Brook, downstream from the Smith mine, is definitively impaired. The biological community begins to recover at the most downstream locations in both brooks due to natural attenuation from mixing with unimpaired streams. On the basis of water quality and biological assessment, the reference locations were of good quality. The sediment toxicity, chemistry, and aquatic community survey data suggest that the sediments could be a source of toxicity in Pike Hill Brook and the tributary to Cookville Brook. On the basis of water quality, sediment quality, and biologic communities, the impacts of mine drainage on the aquatic ecosystem health of the watersheds in the study area are generally consistent with the toxicity suggested from laboratory toxicity testing on pore water and sediments.

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USGS Numbered Series
Aquatic assessment of the Pike Hill Copper Mine Superfund site, Corinth, Vermont
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center
x, 109 p.; 14 Appendixes; 17 Tables
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United States
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