CARTHAGE, Tenn. – Al Gore has profited from zinc mining that has released millions of pounds of potentially toxic substances near his farmstead, but there is no evidence the mine has caused serious damage to the environment in the area or threatened the health of his neighbors.
Massive white mountains of leftover rock waste are evidence of three decades of mining that earned Gore $570,000 in royalty payments for the mineral rights to his property.
New owners plan to start mining again later this year, after nearly four years of inactivity. In addition to bringing 250 much-needed jobs to rural middle Tennessee, mine owners will resume paying royalties to some residents who, like Gore, own land adjacent to the mine and leased access to the zinc under their property.
Gore has yet to be approached by the new owner, Strategic Resource Acquisition, said his spokeswoman Kalee Kreider, and he and his wife, Tipper, have not decided whether they will renew their lease. It was terminated when the mine closed in 2003.
Last week, Gore sent a letter asking the company to work with Earthworks, a national environmental group, to make sure the operation doesn’t damage the environment.
“We would like for you to engage with us in a process to ensure that the mine becomes a global example of environmental best practices,” Gore wrote.
Victor Wyprysky, the company’s president and chief executive officer, did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.
The letter was sent the week after Gannett News Service posed questions to the former vice president about his involvement with the mine.
Previous mine owners released toxic substances into waterways above the allowable levels several times in the eight years before the mine closed.
But state regulators consider those permit violations minor and monitoring reports provide a clean bill of health for the rivers in the area, which are a source of drinking water. Community leaders and health officials recall no health problems ever associated with the mining.
But now that the mine is reopening and Gore’s status as an environmentalist has grown, some of Gore’s neighbors see a conflict between the mining and his moral call for environmental activism.
“Mining is not exactly synonymous with being green, is it?” said John Mullins, who lives in nearby Cookeville.
At the same time, the Caney Fork Watershed Association, which works to conserve and improve the waterways in the area, has heard no concerns from its members about the mine’s reopening.
The Gores bought the land near the mines from his parents on Sept. 22, 1973, the same day his father bought it from Occidental Minerals, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, and leased the mineral rights back to the company.
Kreider said the terms of the 30-year lease provided the Gores no legal recourse even if they had wanted to cancel it. The Gores, she said, would not comment on whether they tried to pursue legal action to void the lease. She said they never considered selling the land.
Kreider said the Gores received $20,000 a year in royalties for 27 years and $10,000 per year in three years.
During the 1980s, the mine was the largest zinc-producing mine in the country.
In the five-year period from 1998 to 2003, before the mines were shuttered, more than 19 million pounds of toxic substances were released into the air, water and land, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory data. Most of that was zinc pulled from the ground during mining.
Gore noted in his letter that, according to tallies on Scorecard, a Web site run by environmentalists, “pollution releases from the mine in 2002 placed it among the ‘dirtiest/worst facilities’ in the U.S.”
Most of the improper discharges from the mines into nearby rivers and streams involved higher- than-allowed levels of zinc.
One of those waterways was the Caney Fork River, which Gore used as a backdrop in his Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The Gores won’t speculate on whether they will refuse to renew their lease if the new owners don’t follow their request to work with the environmental group, Kreider said.
Also to be decided is what to do about the leases on two parcels owned by Albert Gore Sr., which Gore eventually will inherit when his parents’ estates are settled.