Creeks now flow clean through Waynesville and Sylva

Ed Williams is an expert when it comes to spotting the telltale signs of sewage seeping into creeks.

“You get an eye and a nose for it,” Williams said. “You put the boots on and get in. You just start at the mouth and walk up, keeping your eyes open and looking for funny smells, too.”

Williams has put his reconnaissance skills to work along the primary urban creeks running through Waynesville and Sylva. He’s found sewage oozing from the tip of storm pipes, seeping from soil along the banks and even bubbling out of manhole covers.

Williams runs a special unit of the N.C. Division of Water Quality that restores polluted or impaired mountain creeks. Both Richland and Scotts creek were flagged due to high bacteria counts associated with raw sewage.

Two years later, however, the once unhealthy levels of fecal coliform in the creeks are under control. Both creeks are popular for recreation. Children wade and splash in Richland Creek as it courses through the Waynesville Recreation Park. Fishermen can be seen from the greenway along its banks most afternoons.

At the mouth of Scott’s Creek in Sylva, a public park serves as a put-in for dozens of rafters and paddlers daily in the summer. Some swim and float in Scott’s Creek while waiting their turn to launch.

“It is wonderful for people who are waiting for their kayak and raft shuttles to cool themselves off without risk of getting some disease,” said Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River. “Based on the old data, it was unwise. Now it is safe.”


In the water

Figuring out where and how the raw sewage was getting into the creeks wasn’t simple, however. Sylva and Waynesville are both riddled with aging sewer lines that often spring underground leaks. The creeks are also plagued by failing private septic systems and even remnants of straight-piping — once a common practice in the early days of indoor plumbing when pipes simply ran through the yard and dumped into the creek out back.

Before Williams dons his waders for an in-stream survey, he spends weeks creating a map of potential hot spots. He takes periodic water samples the length of the creek — as well as side branches — and sends them off to the lab for analysis.

The results give him a snapshot of where the fecal coliform counts are highest.

“The numbers make it blatantly obvious that there is something going on in an area,” Williams said.

Along Richland Creek, Williams sampled 75 points from Lake Junaluska to its headwaters in Balsam.

Sometimes, finding the culprit on the ground wasn’t easy, however. Occasionally, Williams had to smoke them out.

Workers with the town of Waynesville’s sewer department would open up manholes and pump smoke into the lines while Williams and his team watched for it to seep up from the ground, revealing the spot in the line where the leak is.

Other times, they slipped a little green dye into the sewer line, while Williams stood in the creek looking for a green plume.

Along one stretch, high readings clearly indicated a hot spot but even the smoke and dye trick was unable to turn up a leak in the town’s lines. Not easily stumped, Williams cast about for other suspects and settled on a restaurant which sits along the creek. When his team flushed green dye down the restaurant’s toilets, sure enough, the creek turned green just seconds later.

Williams said the town of Waynesville spends $250,000 a year systematically repairing sewer lines. The town was willing and eager to work with Williams targeting the leaks and quickly fixed them.

In Sylva, Williams traced most of the problem to just two main offenders. One was an overflowing manhole. It wasn’t hard to spot the sewage bubbling out of it, Williams said. The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority patched the leak.

Along a side branch, Williams found a failing septic tank draining into the creek.

“It looked as if someone had rammed a pipe into the septic field to release the pressure and that was going into creek,” Williams said.

The homeowner didn’t have the money to fix the problem, however, but she was able to get financial assistance through the Waste Discharge Elimination Program, a state initiative to pinpoint and fix failing septic tanks.

Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek initially came to the state’s attention thanks to regular sampling done by volunteers from the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee.

“We petitioned the state to come down and take a look,” Clapp said.

The state got similar results, and Scott’s Creek was put on the impaired list in 2005.

“I had no idea at that point that it would be down to the level it is now,” Clapp said.


Miles to go

There are 490 miles of stream in the 19 western counties on the state’s list of impaired waters. There are several reasons a creek or river lands on the black list. One is bacteria from raw sewage. Another is high loads of sediment and erosion, or a deficiency of aquatic life.

The state hasn’t always been involved in fixing streams. It listed impaired waters but had no staff to do anything about the bad news.

“As far as a hands-on approach, we hadn’t done that so much,” Williams said.

In 2007, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources began its first-ever stream restoration program.

Richland and Scott’s creeks were the first in the 17-county area chosen to get help. It was a lucky break, since only a couple of waterways could be tackled at a time.

Priority goes to those with critical habitat for endangered species or popular creeks for recreation — which is why both Richland and Scott’s creeks were picked.

A 2007 article in The Smoky Mountain News about the public health risk at the rafting put-in at Scott’s Creek was a major factor in its selection, as well as lobbying by WATR, Williams said.

WATR volunteers often serve as the eyes and ears for the state water quality division, which doesn’t have the staff to sample all the streams that need monitoring. Haywood Waterways Association serves the same role in Haywood County.

This fall, WATR has partnered with Western Carolina University environmental science students to sample Savannah Creek, another hot spot in Jackson County for fecal coliform, and to do follow-up monitoring along Scott’s Creek to make sure high levels don’t resurface.

“It is exciting that WATR and our partners will be testing more streams to confirm clean water or to identify problems,” Clapp said.

Meanwhile in Waynesville, Richland Creek is still parked on the list of impaired waters. The reason: it lacks key aquatic species that a mountain stream should have.

Decades ago, pollution from Waynesville factories wiped out species. While the water is cleaner now, fish haven’t been able to repopulate Richland Creek.

“Lake Junaluska stands in the way as a barrier to fish migration, so we have had to physically pick the fish up and bring them up there,” Williams said.

Several species are being reintroduced and should improve Richland Creek’s biological integrity, and eventually get it off the list of impaired waters. The N.C. Wildlife Commission and Tennessee Valley Authority have helped with the reintroductions.

“Whatever it takes to fix the stream, we are trying to do,” Williams said. “We can never really say mission accomplished and go home and it is fixed. You have to keep monitoring forever.”


Scott’s Creek improvement

Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek show marked improvement following efforts in 2007 to cleanup sources of contamination

State standard    200

Average reading in 2005    2,150

Average reading in 2008    170

Average reading in 2009    100

Average reading in 2010    130

* Measured in fecal units per 100 milliliters of water. Samples taken at the mouth of Scott’s Creek just before its confluence with the Tuckasegee River. Data provided by Division of Water Quality.

Quarry must improve sediment control measures

A large rock quarry in Waynesville has been cited with a water quality violation for sending mud into nearby Allens Creek.

The Harrison Construction rock quarry, which mines rock used in road building, was issued a notice of violation on July 8 from the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The violations carry the potential for hefty fines, but if problems are fixed immediately, fines usually aren’t imposed.

The quarry has been in the limelight over the past three months due to a controversial expansion plan. Neighbors fed up with the quarry’s practices had complained to state officials about mud running off the quarry and into the creek, and even documented it themselves in photographs.

Neighbors’ action prompted the first water quality inspection of the site in more than four years, which resulted in the violations. Creek samples taken upstream of the quarry were pristine compared to immediately downstream where sediment levels were 100 times higher than what’s allowed under state standards.

Sediment-laden rainwater was running off three areas of the quarry and into Allens Creek unchecked, according to the inspection report. While the quarry had erosion safeguards elsewhere on site, three areas lacked such measures. Runoff from quarry walls, dirt roads, crushing operations and even the asphalt waste pile flowed off the site and into the creek without first passing through erosion check points, according to the report.

The quarry should have noticed the problem itself and alerted state water quality officials. Failing to do so was among six violations the quarry was cited for.

“If they see a bunch of turbid water blowing out, we expect them to let us know they are having issues and what they are doing to fix it,” said Linda Wiggs, a state water quality official in Asheville. “We don’t want to hear it from someone else.”

Wiggs was among a team of four people who inspected the quarry site on June 26. Their official report from the inspection was made public last week. The quarry has until July 26 to explain why turbidity standards were violated and why the Division of Water Quality hadn’t been notified.

Harrison officials did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment for this article.

As a result of the violation, the quarry will have to take water samples in Allens Creek on a monthly basis and send them to state water quality officials until further notice. Normally, the quarry would only have to sample the creek twice a year.

The quarry was also cited for failing to keep proper erosion records. The quarry is supposed to monitor how well its sediment safeguards are working in weekly inspections and keep a log of erosion maintenance.

For example, earthen dams that slow down rainwater and trap sediment before it reaches the creek can quickly become backlogged and must be cleaned out regularly — something that should be noted in the quarry’s log book.

Another technique is to divert muddy water into giant retaining ponds where sediment settles to the bottom. The ponds, too, have to be dug out to maintain the holding capacity.

The quarry’s maintenance logs were inadequate, however.

“They were generalizing a lot of their erosion control inspections. I told them they needed to be more specific,” Wiggs said.

As part of its self-policing, the quarry is supposed to assess its erosion safeguards within 24 hours of a rainfall of half an inch or more, per state water quality standards. But the quarry’s environmental compliance manager splits his time between seven rock quarries — one in each of the seven western counties. Wiggs said that it’s too big a job for one person in the report.

“If they think they can be compliant with one guy running around to that many areas, that’s fine, but we felt like ‘Well, let’s get some other folks doing this,’” Wiggs said.

The inspection report warned that failing to monitor runoff “because personnel are not available during a discharge event is not an acceptable practice.”

Fixing the problem

The quarry must now figure out what new erosion safeguards are needed to stop the unchecked runoff — but also exactly where all the water is coming from, Wiggs said.

Quarry workers told Wiggs they didn’t realize muddy water was escaping from the site without first passing through erosion checkpoints. Quarry workers told Wiggs they thought the water running off the site was clean groundwater seeping out of the excavated pit.

Quarries inevitably hit the groundwater table, and pools of water form in the pits. Quarry workers told Wiggs they thought the pools were merely overflowing, and therefore, they weren’t paying attention to it.

In reality, the runoff from the quarry’s bare slopes and water used to spray down crushing operations — both laden with sediment — were mingling with the pit water, Wiggs said.

“It is recommended a thorough evaluation of this entire drainage take place,” the report states.

The quarry must have a sediment and erosion control plan on file with the state as part of its mining permit. That plan was inadequate, however, as it shows only two locations where runoff leaves the quarry when in reality there are five, Wiggs said.

State mining inspectors had consistently deemed the quarry “in compliance” with its sediment and erosion control plan, without noticing that the plan itself was inaccurate. Jamie Kritzer, public information officer, said mining inspectors focused on whether the quarry was “meeting the conditions of its state mining permit,” and not necessarily the larger issue of storm water runoff.

Wiggs said the sediment and erosion control plan needs to be updated.

“Mines move land. Things shift,” Wiggs said.

Indeed, when the quarry sliced open a new part of the mountainside as part of a major pit expansion in 2008, it apparently created new routes for runoff.

Further exacerbating the issue, a massive rockslide in 2009 reduced a section of the quarry wall to rubble — a loose pile of dirt and rock that is hundreds of feet wide and tall. Rain running off the slide section is contributing to sediment issues, Wiggs said.

Harrison did not waste any time getting to work. Even before the official violation notice arrived in the mail, a team of dozers and dump trucks could be seen at the quarry site shoring up erosion measures day in and day out.

Landfills hustle to catch tainted rain water before it seeps away

When it comes to landfills, rain isn’t just inconvenient — it’s dangerous.

In 2009, the White Oak landfill in Haywood County had to contend with more than 35 million gallons of rainwater seeping into disposed waste.

While 80 percent of that rainwater is absorbed by the trash, the remaining 20 percent transforms into a contaminated liquid called leachate, which poses significant environmental and health risks.

The region saw about 62 inches of rain last year, falling just three inches short of the 1973 record. And if the rain wasn’t bad enough, the county got 22 inches of snow in December.

“It’s just a constant battle out there,” said Stephen King, waste director for Haywood County.

The White Oak landfill collects its leachate into a pool then hauls it to a wastewater treatment plant, an endeavor that alone cost $56,000 during the previous year when the region was in an extreme drought.

According to King, each inch of rain produces about 27,000 gallons of water — per acre. The landfill presently takes up 21 acres and is about to heap on 8.8 acres more.

“We had to double the capacity of the leachate pond just to accommodate the new cell,” said King.

The county faces several alternatives that might help lower costs in the long run. They include housing an internal wastewater treatment or running a sewer line directly to the wastewater plant that already exists.

Denese Ballew, landfill manager for Haywood, said both options would be costly, but the county is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of the latter, less expensive option.

“You have to have the cost to justify doing something like that,” said Ballew, pointing out that not every year will be as wet as 2009.

Federal law mandates that landfills properly treat leachate, and state laws are even more stringent, according to Ballew.

Modern landfill designs include liners and leachate collection systems, but almost all landfills that opened in North Carolina prior to 1993 have neither. Groundwater contamination continues to emanate from these unlined facilities. Another volatile byproduct from landfills is the build-up of methane gas from decomposing trash.

Haywood County hopes to alleviate both problems by installing a methane collection system at the old, unlined Francis Farm landfill. Extracting methane might also help keep contaminated water in check.

“If we have a positive suction on the landfill, we can prevent the water from migrating away,” said King.

A long time coming

The public is two-and-a-half years late learning that a popular area for swimming, rafting and fishing in Jackson County isn’t safe for extended human contact with the water due to high levels of fecal coliform.

Mountain waters aren’t what they appear; Scotts Creek tests ‘scary high’ for contaminates

Unsafe levels of fecal coliform in the Tuckasegee River and two tributaries around Dillsboro have Jackson County public health officials puzzled over how seriously to take the issue and what to do next.

Clean water for Racking Cove: Contentious water fund decision will provide Jackson residents with safe water

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

It’s been almost a year since Bonita Fox and her family have taken a sip of water from their well.

TWASA waits for capacity expansion go-ahead

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Officials at Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority are waiting for the go-ahead from the state to increase sewer treatment plant capacity, which could end the current moratorium on sewer hook-ups.

Haywood water quality a mixed bag

Haywood County consistently has some of the best water quality in North Carolina, according to stream samples collected by volunteers in an ongoing water quality monitoring project orchestrated by Haywood Waterways Association.

State says mill discharge does not require public notification

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

A clean water advocacy group is questioning why an accidental discharge of a paper-making byproduct into the Pigeon River by the former Blue Ridge Paper mill hasn’t been the subject of more scrutiny.

Activists demand a cleaner Pigeon from Blue Ridge

By Julia Mrchant • Staff Writer

A decades-long battle between advocates for a clean Pigeon River and the Canton-based company Blue Ridge Paper Products reared its head last week at a rally where several groups called for further clean-up of the river, which some have referred to as “the dirty bird” due to its pollution levels.

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