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Crook County mine neighbors say operation contaminated water; Knife River, state agency dispute claims

(Update: Adding video, comments from Knife River, attorney Ed Fitch, mine neighbors)

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Two-dozen neighbors of a mine northwest of Prineville, and their attorney claim mining operations have contaminated the their water. But a state agency said its review of well test samples from a resident and the company, Knife River, found no evidence the mine caused such problems.

Knife River, a construction material company, has been operating the aggregate mine off Stahancyk Lane and submitted plans to expand the site.

In a letter to Crook County officials in early January, the residents' attorney, Ed Fitch, said they were asking Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality to examine the issue and for the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) not to issue any permit for additional mining or reclamation "until the situation has been properly assessed."

Attorney Ed Fitch, representing some of the impact neighbors, told NewsChannel 21, "In the last year or so, a number of neighbors have noticed a lot of contamination in their water."

But neighbors say high levels of toxic materials such as manganese and aluminum have turned up in their well water and contaminated it, turning toilet bowls from clear to black and making tap water undrinkable.

Clogged pipes, toilet tanks filling with sludge, and black water are just some of the things neighbors say they've found in the past year from their wells.

"One neighbor has had to remove all the piping in his home," Fitch said, adding that the final amount of damages is expected to total over $70,000.

In February, two DOGAMI experts wrote in response that they had reviewed the groundwater sampling data submitted by one resident and by Knife River, and said that "there appears to be no evidence substantiating groundwater contamination derived from the (mine) site."

Fitch included a list of over 30 homeowners experiencing issues with their water and a map showing their location relative to the mine site.

Neighbors are pointing to a nearby aggregate mine run by Knife River, a construction company who does work in 14 states.

Chris Doan, vice-president of Knife River in the Central Oregon region, defended the company's mining practices, telling NewsChannel 21, "We are confident our mining practices are consistent with those across the state and they are at the highest level of integrity."

Knife River has been mining dirt, sand and gravel at the site for about a year.

Fitch claims the Knife River testing is flawed and told NewsChannel 21, "We believe that the mining operation affected the manganese that was in the land, churned it up."

Dick Zimmerlee and his wife have lived in Crook County for over a decade. Dick said his wife was the first one to notice changes in the water.

"She was having some health issues, and she left town for a few days. And she drank a lot of water before she left here, and she noticed when she quit drinking the water here, her health problems straightened up," Zimmerlee said.

Another neighbor, Adam Mikulski, lives right across the street from the Knife River project with his wife, Karen. While they say their water has not been contaminated by the mining, they are concerned about might happen to the underground aquifer, once the project is complete.

Mikulski expressed fear of how the land will fare once Knife River is done with mining: "In five or 10 years, when they start fertilizing those fields to try and bring them up to par again after those mining, and trying to grow something on there, how much will leach into the groundwater?"

Doan maintains Knife River hasn't committed any wrongdoing: "We have an obligation to take care of the properties we mine across the state, we have a long history of doing just that."

We reached out to the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. They were unable to accommodate our request for an interview, but DOGAMI did respond to Fitch and the neighbors last month, saying tests of water samples by a resident and by Knife River did not find high levels of manganese or aluminum coming from the mine.

Knife River's Doan added: "We will continue to monitor the situation as well and continue to work with the neighbors."

Last week, Fitch wrote to DOGAMI officials, calling Knife River's submitted data "deeply flawed" and claiming, "It is clear there is now a significant public health emergency in this area of Crook County."

Article Topic Follows: Environment

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Blake Mayfield

Blake Mayfield is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Blake here.


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