By Michael Virtanen
NL Industries stopped digging for titanium ore at Tahawus in the 1980s, but the mine remains a visible presence on the edge of the High Peaks Wilderness. Hikers driving to the Upper Works trailhead pass a stretch of the Hudson River lined with rock tailings from the mine. Those who venture up nearby Mount Adams or one of several other peaks look down on a pile of loose stone that rises three hundred feet.
If you fly over in a small plane, as we did with one of Lighthawk’s volunteer pilots in May, the site resembles a gray island in a sea of green forest. The tailings mound sits between two water-filled mining pits that look like blue Adirondack lakes with unusual teal coloring in the shallows. A smaller pond nearby looks fern green.
The large industrial buildings visible in historical photographs are gone. Only a few service buildings remain, including a garage. Terraces cut into the rock rim rise above the water in the north pit. Much of the land is barren, covered in rock and black sand, but vegetation is starting to grow back.
NL used to own more than eleven thousand acres at Tahawus. The Open Space Institute bought most of the company’s land in 2003. Several years later, OSI sold about 6,800 acres to the state for inclusion in the Forest Preserve. The conservation group had declined to buy the 1,200-acre industrial site, said Joe Martens, who was OSI’s president at the time of the deal and later became the state’s environmental conservation commissioner.
Martens said the hulking industrial buildings and the two steep mine pits posed liability issues. “There was just some sort of residual contamination issues, but mostly it was the asbestos that was in the buildings,” Martens said. “When OSI bought the property we carved all that out, left the problem with NL. It’s sort of remarkable NL removed all those buildings and carted them away someplace.”
Thanks to state land acquisitions in recent years, the former mine is now rimmed by forever-wild Forest Preserve, raising some big questions. What is the future of this industrial site? Should it be added to the Preserve? Could the site ever be developed?
For the short term, we have some answers. Earlier this year, Mitchell Stone Products of Tupper Lake bought the mine from NL (which is now a holding company). Paul Mitchell, the new owner, has been selling construction aggregate from the tailings for a decade and plans to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Under current market conditions, he said, the hill of stone could last twenty years.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently approved Mitchell’s permit to continue crushing stone on twenty-three acres and transporting it by truck. The work could last seventy-five years, according to the company’s analysis. It also noted no adverse impacts on nearby river systems and projected noise levels below local ambient sound.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do with it long term. There’s no grand plan,” said the sixty-year-old Mitchell, who gave us a tour of the site in late May.
Mitchell had first inquired about buying the property when he started work there. As we walked about, he stopped a few times to admire the landscape and unobstructed view of neighboring mountains. “You fall in love with the place,” he said.
Mitchell also owns a lumber business that he, with his wife, started in his twenties with a chainsaw and a skidder. Mitchell’s son also works in the businesses now. They employ twenty-seven people. On the day of our tour, there were two workers at the mine, one operating a large backhoe, dropping tailings into a rumbling machine that processes the stone aggregate. Another ran a bulldozer, pushing the result into piles for loading onto trucks that occasionally came and went.
In the mine’s heyday, National Lead (as NL was then known) employed four hundred people at Tahawus. It started operations during World War II—when titanium was needed for the war effort—and continued mining into the 1980s. The tailings hill is made up of the waste rock.
Years ago, NL filled in Sanford Lake with rock waste slurry and dug a new channel for the Hudson River, where it still flows. The former lake now looks like a black sand flat. The Sanford Lake of today is narrower, basically a widening of the river south of the mine.
Known as the Lower Works, the former titanium mine is one of the largest remnants of the Adirondacks’ industrial past. At one time, there were hundreds of mines, mostly for iron, in the mountains. Among them was the Upper Works, located three miles north, where iron was mined and smelted a century earlier, from about 1826 to 1856.
A county road ends at the Upper Works trailhead, used by hikers going into the High Peaks and paddlers going to nearby Henderson Lake, with its spectacular view of Wallface in Indian Pass. The Hudson starts at the lake’s concrete spillway.
There is no evidence that the former NL mine is a threat to the environment. DEC spokesman David Winchell said the agency has no reports of pollution from the site.
“It has a fairly clean bill of health,” remarked Mitchell, who was given NL’s environmental reports.
He said he couldn’t explain why the water in some pits and ponds has unusual hues.
Jeff Chiaranzelli, a geology professor at St. Lawrence University, said the colors could be caused by fine particles from the mining and ore processing or from naturally occurring chemicals.
Chiarenzelli, whose research focuses on the Adirondacks, said a mining operation like that at Tahawus typically is cleaner than, say, a coal mine, with its sulfurous ore—though he cautioned that he doesn’t know if there were chemical spills or other problems at the site.
“The nice thing about these mines is the materials aren’t really hazardous in any sense of the word except for, you know, if they fall on you. Over in Tahawus it’s a mix of magnetite and ilmenite,” Chiarenzelli said. “Ilmenite’s a mineral they got titanium from. So you don’t have the problems you do from sulfite-based ores where you have acid mine drainage and the release of lots of toxic metals if the pH in the waters is low.”
In contrast, Benson Mines near Star Lake, in the northwestern Adirondacks, was declared a state Superfund site. The iron-ore mine had employed hundreds before closing in the late 1970s. Chiaranzelli said a lot of oil leaked into the ground.
The Explorer did some water sampling near the Tahawus mine with a simple test kit purchased at a hardware store. We drew water above and below the mine—about a hundred yards downstream from the Henderson Lake spillway, where the riverbed is rocky, and at Sanford Lake, where the bottom of the rerouted river is silty. The tests showed little difference in water quality. The pH was somewhat low, or acidic, at both sites. Test strips showed no indications of elevated nitrates, nitrites, copper, iron, or lead, and both locations were negative for coliform bacteria. However, the test is not sophisticated enough to detect trace amounts of metals.
Paul Hai, a former Newcomb town councilman, said water from wells at the mine was tested for years after NL ceased operations. He described the mining as largely mechanical, not chemical. “There is not a legacy of pollution,” said Hai, who is associate director of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Northern Forest Institute in Newcomb.
Mitchell is even thinking of stocking the water-filled pits with fish—something NL once tried with brown trout (they lasted only one generation). At 240 and 280 feet, the water in the pits is deeper than every Adirondack lake except Lake Champlain. Essentially, they are spring-fed artificial lakes, with no inlet or outlet.
Small trees and other vegetation have taken root on some of the tailings. Mitchell foresees further greening as nature reclaims the land. “If you don’t contaminate the soils you can’t stop the forests from coming in,” he said.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, agrees that the old mine is not an environmental hazard, but he’d like to see it cleaned up sooner rather than later. “It does not seem that the mine itself is a source of pollution that we know of,” he said. “It doesn’t seem at this point that the mine itself is [anything] more than an eyesore.”
He suggests the remediation of the site could be accelerated by using the crushed stone for porous pavement projects throughout the Park similar to Beach Road in Lake George. Porous pavement allows storm-water runoff to sift into the ground, reducing waterway pollution.
NL Industries did some landscaping and planted trees in the past decade, and Hai said Mitchell is helping restore the site by whittling down the rock pile. “He’s actually helping remove what some people regard as an eyesore,” Hai said.
Removal of the tailings, though, could pose a problem down the road: if the state or a future owner wants to fill in the pits, what will they use as fill if all the tailings are gone?
“The more stone you take out of there, the less fill you have. It’s a problem in the long run if you wanted to fill the pits,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Woodworth, Bauer, and David Gibson, of Adirondack Wild, would like the state to acquire the site someday and add it to the Preserve—although DEC has no interest in doing so at this time.
“Eventually we’d like to see the mine cleaned up, restored to its natural topography as much as possible, and then become part of the Forest Preserve. This process could play out over decades,” Bauer said in an email.
“When the stone is gone someday, the State of New York will likely be the buyer of last resort at Tahawus,” Gibson predicted, adding that some or all of the land could be classified as a Historic Area with trails and educational exhibits.
Now the site is classified by the Adirondack Park Agency as an Industrial Use Area. Under this designation, it could not be subdivided and developed, but APA spokesman Keith McKeever said residential development would be possible if the classification were changed.
Mitchell, however, said he has no intention to build houses, and environmentalists say they’re not too worried about the prospect of a vacation-home development at Tahawus, despite its proximity to the High Peaks.
“While the site has a grand view, the market for homes on an old mine site is rather thin,” Bauer said. “While there’s no predicting the future, this tract should be preserved as open space and allow the forest to reclaim it and the rivers that pass through it to occupy their original routes and be ecologically restored.”
If a housing development were proposed years or decades hence, Gibson expects it would meet resistance. “Advocates for wildness in the Park in the future will, I’d predict, act as we might today and vehemently oppose private-land reclassification to permit residential subdivision and development at Tahawus,” he said in an email.
State law requires that every mine must be reclaimed at the end of its productive life. According to DEC, NL posted a $50,000 financial guarantee for a 138-acre “affected” area of its mining operation and completed that reclamation in 1996. Mitchell has established $51,500 financial security for final reclamation of 2.3 acres, about one-tenth of the reclamation site.
Mitchell will be required to remove all stockpiled material or grade the site to blend in with the surroundings. He will not have to plant trees or fill in the deep pits. “We don’t have very grand plans for this place,” he said. “We want to just continue running our stone business like we’ve been running it the past ten years.”
Woodworth, however, does have a grand vision for the old mine.
“I’d love for my grandchildren to fly over it and just see woods,” he said. “That would be the dream.” ■
Phil Brown contributed to this story.