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Repair work under way to keep Island Creek dam from failing

South Boston News
Island Creek Dam (above right) keeps water from reaching abandoned tungsten mines that operated in northern North Carolina through the early 1970s.
SoVaNow.com / August 08, 2018
For most of the summer, construction crews have been repairing the earthen dam that separates the body of water known as Island Creek from John H. Kerr Reservoir to correct a “seepage problem” that could cause the dam to fail.

The Island Creek dam sits off of N.C. Highway 39 near Island Creek Park on the North Carolina-Virginia border. It is 2,100 feet long and 92 feet high and was built in 1951 to prevent the inundation of the Tungsten Queen mine near Townsville, N.C. At the time of the initial construction project, tungsten was a critical material needed for national defense.

The mine operated from 1942 until it closed in 1971. It is now said to be filled with mine tailings that contain hazardous materials.

The problem was first discovered in 2011 during a routine dam safety inspection, according to Janet Hodges, a program analyst and project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District. At the time it was rated “high priority-conditionally unsafe.”

The Corps of Engineers called the seepage problem “a major safety concern” since a catastrophic failure of this dam could “impact approximately thirty lives and could cause the inundation of the now shuttered Tungsten Queen Mine site, which is known to contain hazardous material.” The nature and extent of those hazardous materials have not been identified by the Corps, but the site is subject to a remediation agreement between the Corps and North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

On the project website, the Corps acknowledges that the need to repair Island Creek Dam became a major concern once the agency realized that the federal government faces potential liability tied to site assessment and cleanup if the tungsten mine floods. The government owns the property and leased it to various mining companies on which mine tailings have been placed.

In 2013, the area around the mine was assessed, and the federal government and the N.C. Department of Environment Quality entered into a voluntary agreement to restrict land use in the area to industrial purposes. At the same time, NCDEQ approved a plan for the remediation of the Corps property covered with mine tailings. This work is separate from repairs to the Island Creek Dam.

To the best of the Corps’ knowledge, Hodges said, there is no evidence of seepage from the Tungsten mine into either Island Creek or Kerr Lake Reservoir. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has monitoring wells near the berm that separates the mine from the waters in Island Creek. Hodges added this berm is a different structure, not the Island Creek Dam.

While there is a weight limit for vehicles traveling on Highway 39 near the dam during the repairs, Hodges said travelers on that road are not in any danger as the roadway is not part of the Island Creek dam but runs atop the nearby spillway. However, the weight limit, which she did not specify, would remain in place until permanent repairs are completed in November.

The repair work includes construction of a seepage berm with a toe drain system along the downstream toe of the Island Creek Dam embankment. It includes transporting, placing, compacting and grading fill material, and installing sand and gravel filters. Hodges said, in laymen terms, the work includes installation of a drain located at the junction of the face of the dam and the ground surface. The seepage berm filters water as it passes through the dam and prevents erosion of the structure.

BC Peabody Construction Services, based in Florida, has been hired to complete the repairs at a cost of $1.85 million.

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