Holly Kays

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Attendees at Cullowhee’s hearing on the proposed oil and gas rules Sept. 12 were overwhelmingly anti-fracking, but a small contingent of men showed up on a bus from Winstom-Salem — provided by the N.C. Energy Forum —  wearing sky blue t-shirts bearing the words “Shale Yes.” Except, fracking opponents are saying, the men weren’t exactly informed proponents of the fossil fuel extraction practice.

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fr frackingIt didn’t take but a glance around the lawn of the Liston B. Ramsey Center at Western Carolina University to see that Sept. 12 was going to be an eventful evening.

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out frBryson City will soon have another feather in the cap proving its worth as an outdoors Mecca. If all goes well, the town will get its name added as a Mountain Heritage Trout Water City by the time summer rolls around again. 

“Trout fishermen come and they stay a while,” said N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who filed the original bill calling for the trout city designation. “They stay in your bed and breakfast, they eat at your restaurants and often they bring their other family members.”

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Bruce O’Connell was pretty surprised to see Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods appear at his door Sept. 8. The Pisgah Inn owner had submitted his bid for a contract renewal to operate the inn off the Blue Ridge Parkway weeks earlier and had expected to be holding his breath on the outcome for quite a while. 

But Woods had come to say that, congratulations, O’Connell had won another 10 years. 

“I’m not really thinking right now,” O’Connell said when asked his thoughts on the renewal. “I’m just kind of soaking it in. I’m happy, the crew’s happy, word is spreading. It’s all good.”

O’Connell first came to the inn, located off mile 408.6 of the Parkway, in 1978 when he bought in with his parents, and he’s been through two contract renewals with the National Park Service since. This time, though, he’d been fearful of losing out to one of the big concessions companies that, in his view, have been eating up more and more local operators. He even hired a consultant to write his proposal this time, paying a sum that he would only define as “big bucks.” 

“Mr. O’Connell and his family have provided services to millions of visitors over 35 years on the Parkway,” Wood said in a press release. “We are pleased that Parkway Inn, Inc. will continue this rich tradition.”

The inn includes a 51-room lodge, restaurant, gift shop, country store and employee housing. The contract awards O’Connell management of the inn for 10 more years, through the end of 2024. 

The bid process is closed, and the Park Service would not say whether any other bidders submitted a proposal. Regardless, O’Connell is looking forward to a return to business as usual. 

“I want to get back to normal and doing what we do right now and not worry about all this crazy stuff,” O’Connell said. 

The Smoky Mountain News’ cover story on the contract renewal is online at www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/14046-a-concessionaire-s-conundrum-pisgah-inn-owner-hoping-nps-contract-renewal-yields-10-more-years-of-local-ownership. 

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It was back to school for a group of staunch fracking opponents on Friday, Sept. 5. The corner conference room in the Jackson County Public Library was a bit small for the 20 people crammed in to it, but they were ready to learn. 

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A walk through the parking lot was all that was necessary to see that a diverse crowd had gathered to hear what the group of panelists N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, had assembled had to say about fracking. Cars outside the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin sported bumper stickers promoting everything from gun rights to local foods, their owners pouring into the auditorium by the hundreds to settle into self-assigned pro- and anti-fracking seating blocks. 

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Western North Carolina is no longer on State Geologist Ken Taylor’s schedule for this fall’s tour de hydrocarbons in North Carolina. Taylor had planned to come to WNC in September to collect rock samples from road rights-of-way to test their carbon content. That initial test would have determined whether there was any point in pursuing shale gas exploration in the region any further.

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cover 330 200Anyone who’s read a newspaper, turned on a TV or listened to chitchat in a grocery store sometime over the last six months has probably heard about North Carolina’s impending foray into the world of natural gas exploration. At the end of May, the state legislature passed a bill to lift a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for fossil fuels. And in July, the Mining and Energy Commission released a draft set of rules to govern the industry. 

SEE ALSO: WNC shale gas study cancelled
Fracking panel draws crowd in FranklinFracking opponents prepare for battle

Depending who you ask, that document contains either the strictest regulations of any of the 34 states that allow the practice, or a joke specially designed to favor industry and render citizens powerless. 

The rules document covers a lot of ground in its 105-page span, but some sections are especially adept at drawing out praise from supporters and criticism from opponents.

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Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, went head-to-head with Tom Hill, D-Zirconia, his challenger for the 11th District Congressional seat, in a debate last week at Western Carolina University. Open seats were sparse in the A.K. Hinds University Center’s auditorium as the candidates debated everything from income inequality to the Ukraine in a debate sponsored by the university’s Public Policy Institute and Department of Political Science and Public Affiars. 

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out frTucked away along a squirrely offshoot of Jonathan Creek Road, Dennis “Bear” Forsythe’s 15-by-15-foot greenhouse is like his own private Eden. The small outbuilding in rural Haywood County holds 500 plants representing 58 species, everything from pineapple to pepper. 

“I just love doing it,” Forsythe said. “You have running water and it’s soothing, it’s relaxing. You come out here and you say, ‘I grew everything here from seed.’”

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The Parker Meadows project is taking a slight turn after the discovery of a Cherokee gravesite launched a series of meetings and negotiations between the county and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

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fr franklinThe Franklin Main Street Program has been soaking up some criticism lately, and the issues came to a head at an Aug. 19 meeting of Franklin residents, town administrators, business owners and board members. The verdict: Shape up by January, or lose town funding.

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fr cattlecallWhen Gna Wyatt called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about the manure piles covering Osborne Farms in Clyde, she wasn’t trying to make headlines. She just wanted life to get better for the cows she had spent the summer milking. 

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out frDespite warnings of thunderstorms earlier in the week, Aug. 22 came with a blue sky and a light breeze, temperatures hovering around a sunny 70 degrees at the Black Balsam Trailhead. Gail Fox, a National Park Service ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, predicted fantastic views from the top of Sam Knob as a group of about 15 people gathered in the parking lot. 

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fr birdtownSwain County voters living in Cherokee and Whittier will begin a new routine on Election Day this November. The precinct’s longtime polling place in Whittier is moving five miles down the road to Birdtown, a change that board of elections officials say was prompted by accessibility concerns. 

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Highlands residents will soon be seeing better cell phone coverage in town following the town board’s unanimous vote to move forward in negotiating a contract with Verizon Wireless. 

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fr forumNorth Carolina education has seen its share of high-profile issues over the last couple of years. Teacher raises, tenure, vouchers, budget calculations and adoption — and then abandonment — of the Common Core State Standards have all made headlines. A roomful of people gathered at last week’s Macon County League of Women Voters’ meeting to hear a panel of Macon County teachers, administrators and teachers address those changes’ effect on the classroom. The question: Is public education reforming or declining? 

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fr petacowsSwarming flies. Cows trudging through knee-deep manure. Lame legs, an overgrown hoof, blood oozing from a nose. Bones protruding from emaciated bodies. There’s no denying that the picture painted in a recently released video from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was a grim one.  

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A pair of proposed 180-foot cell phone towers met some adamant opposition at the Aug. 20 Macon County Commissioners meeting. The applications, proposed by two separate companies for two separate locations, were both denied, but for technical reasons that make it likely they’ll resurface. 

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Fracking flooded the public comments section of the Macon County commissioners’ most recent meeting. As the meeting opened, people unable to find a seat lined the back of the room and spilled out the doorway. 

“I love it when it’s filled up,” said Commissioner Paul Higdon. “I think it’s good for the public to be involved.”

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out frUnder a clear sky and afternoon sun, the winding road through Cherokee and out past Birdtown is a beautiful one. It’s a trek that employees at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Office of Environment and Natural Resources have been making a lot over the past several months. 

With the ribbon now cut on a 2,200-square-foot greenhouse and a black-clothed grow yard filled with 33,000 native plants representing 32 species, they’ve finally got something to show for it. 

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fr teacherraisesIt took nearly two months of conferencing, but a state budget bill is finally passed and signed. At the heart of that drawn-out process was education funding. Specifically, what state Republicans are hailing as the largest raise in history for North Carolina teachers.

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coverBy mid-August, there’s already a chill in the air outside Pisgah Inn. Employees and experienced guests walk around in pants and long sleeves, while visitors who didn’t realize August could be this cool sport shorts and tank tops. At 5,000 feet, the panoramic view stays year-round, but autumn comes early. 

“This time of year, it’s full every night,” said the inn’s owner/operator Bruce O’Connell. 

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out breakawayMore than 400 riders will push off from Lake Junaluska Aug. 16 for the fifth year of the Blue Ridge Breakaway ride, their routes winding through the curvy, rural roads of Haywood County, with the two longer routes even venturing up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

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out frWhen Franklin RiverFest’s Anything That Floats Raft Regatta kicks off Aug. 23, Warren Cabe hopes to see the Franklin Fire Department cross the finish line first. The Macon County Emergency Services Director is holding the details of the team’s raft design close to his vest.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “It’s top-secret.”

“The key is we don’t want to drown,” added fire department Captain Carey Patton. 

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out frSunrise was still hours away when the day started at Lake Logan.

With the first starting gun firing at 7 a.m., Aug. 2 the throng of racers participating in the Lake Logan Multisport Festival had to get there early. By 5:30 a.m., N.C. 215 snaking from the Pigeon River Valley in Bethel up the flank of Cold Mountain was clogged with traffic, and one hour later, a mass of competitors, spectators, dogs and children had filled the bridge overlooking Lake Logan. 

“For a long time you could see headlights through the trees for quite a ways,” said Chris Shell, one of about 15 Haywood County sheriff’s deputies policing the event. 

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A new 1.2-mile greenway section along the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee has encountered higher-than-expected costs as it nears completion.

The greenway project called for a major pedestrian bridge across the river at one end. The greenway is on the opposite bank from the parking and access area, so the bridge was the only way to get to the greenway at that end.

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fr focusfranklinThe boardroom in Franklin’s town hall was so packed last Wednesday that town employees had to scavenge chairs from the kitchen and closet to accommodate everyone.

It was a welcomed inconvenience. Mayor Bob Scott hoped a meager half dozen people would show up to the town’s first Focus on Franklin meeting, but more than 60 people came, ranging from 20-somethings to senior citizens, from born-and-raised Franklin to Florida transplant. They were all there for one reason: to lend their voices about what Franklin’s future should hold in a forum where the town aldermen could hear.

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fr landfillThe old Francis Farm Landfill in Waynesville has been closed for nearly 20 years, but its ghost continues to haunt Haywood County.

The county is facing an estimated $5 to $7.5 million in additional environmental cleanup costs for the old landfill, compounding the $1.2 million already shelled out over the past six years.

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fr pathwaysIt’s official — TV personality Ty Pennington is coming to Waynesville, and Haywood Pathways Center has secured $50,000 of its $300,000 fundraising goal to renovate the old Hazelwood prison.

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After contracting with Magellan Strategy Group in May to come up with a five-to-ten-year marketing and management strategy, the Haywood Tourism Development Authority discussed their ideas for turning that report into a two-year action plan to boost the county’s place in the tourism world. 

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Jackson County will soon get a new park at Barkers Creek.

County commissioners approved a lease this week for a roughly 3-acre riverside site owned by Duke Energy for the bargain rate of $10 a year. It adds to a growing network of boat launched, put-ins, and recreation parks dotting the length of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

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fr snowbirdyouthA dream eight years in the making met reality earlier this month when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians cut the ribbon on a new youth center in Snowbird. The 15,000-square-foot building will offer Cherokee youth opportunities ranging from Cherokee language and craft classes to help with homework. 

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fr pathwaysWith the lease drawn up and fundraising underway, most people attending the Haywood County Commissioner meeting last week figured that approving the lease for a trio of Christian groups to renovate the old Hazelwood prison would be a matter-of-fact agenda item. But when the public comment session opened, it became clear that all were not in favor. 

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coverCarson Angel is excited to show off her reading skills as she waits outside East Franklin Elementary for her mom to pick her up. From the pile of hand-colored posters, worksheets and drawings at her feet, the 8-year-old picks out a small book made of quartered computer paper to read out loud. 

“We had to choose six animal facts and write them into sentences,” she explains. Each sentence is chockfull of everything you’d ever want to know about tigers. Carson had been a little too shy to read anything in front of her peers for the last-day-of-camp reading talent show, but one-on-one she’s all about it.  

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out frTaking a walk with Ila Hatter is the outdoors equivalent of sitting beside a scrapbooker as she pages through the family photo album. Every step is a story, a meeting with a plant bearing its own history and its own place in the present. 

“I think stories help you remember,” Hatter said. “They give you something to hold onto as you’re learning plants.”

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moot folksThe whirling skirts and clacking heels of Folkmoot USA represent eight different nations spanning the globe, but while the diversity makes for a beautiful spectacle, having all those languages in one place can make verbal communication a little difficult. There’s not much similarity between English, Russian and Chinese, but dance is universal. 

“Music is an international language,” said Concord resident Mary Talbert, who traveled to see the Folkmoot dancers with her daughter Misty Mowrey. 

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fr macontracsA summer school horse therapy offering at South Macon Elementary School in Franklin will be sticking around once the school year starts, thanks to some successful fundraising efforts at Macon TRACs. The nonprofit, which provides horse therapy to children with special needs, had offered to come in on a trial basis during summer school with the hope that the program could become a permanent fixture at the school. Much of the decision on whether to do so rested on funding. 

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Haywood Pathways Center is almost to the finish line in an online voting contest that would provide $50,000 — plus the help of Ty Pennington and his crew from the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” television show — to turn the old state prison in Hazelwood into a soup kitchen, homeless shelter and halfway house. 

Haywood Pathways is a group comprised of Open Door Ministries, Haywood Christian Emergency Center and Next Step ministries, three separate Christian organizations that hope to join forces at the new site. 

The contest, sponsored by Guaranteed Rate, drew more than 300 entries from 49 states and includes three rounds of voting. Haywood Pathways has come in first place in each of the first two rounds. If the organization repeats the feat in this round, which closes July 29, they’ll get $50,000 toward the $300,000 project. 

“It’s gonna take significant money to overhaul the old prison,” said Nick Honerkamp, head of the homeless shelter portion of Haywood Pathways. “Success begets success, so as we win grants and win competitions like this it causes other organizations to want to help us fund this project.”

To vote for Haywood Pathways Center, click the link on the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HaywoodPathwaysCenter.

— Holly Kays, staff writer

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fr claiborneShane Claiborne was a couple minutes late for his interview with The Smoky Mountain News, but for good reason. Claiborne and his entourage of Philadelphia friends-turned-family had encountered some crawfish that needed catching, and the job required a couple of extra minutes to splash in the creek. 

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Jackson County voters will finally be able to see the shape of the November ballot with the close of a second primary for the Jackson County Sheriff Republican candidate July 15. Following the first primary, in which only 42 votes separated first and last place, results show former Sylva police officer Curtis Lambert coming out on top, beating runner-up Jim Hodgins 130-107.

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Discovery of a Cherokee gravesite on the soon-to-be ballfield complex at Macon County’s Parker Meadows property will likely mean that the county has to tweak its design. Though no final decision has been made, a series of meetings between county and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians leaders has made it clear that the tribe wants the gravesite to stay right where it is. 

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out frMore than 100 people filled the room at Asheville’s Crowne Plaza Hotel earlier this month, but they weren’t there for the pretzels. This 16th meeting in the forest management plan revision process for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests drew people from across Western North Carolina representing a spectrum of interests. Those interests all converged on one topic — wildlife. 

“The overall theme that I feel like from the wildlife habitat perspective is to manage this forest for diversity,” Sheryl Bryan, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, told the crowd. 

More than 300 of the 1,000-plus comments the Forest Service has received so far about its management plan pertained to wildlife, and of those, Bryan said, “we did by far receive the most comments concerning the amount of early successional habitat and the mix of age classes associated with that. So the elephant’s out there and we’re going to talk about that.”

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coverThe four-legged officers of Haywood County are now bulletproof, thanks to a donation from the Western North Carolina Dog Fanciers Association. Of the seven K9s in the county, two had been missing the Kevlar protection they’d need to stay safe in case of a skirmish involving guns or knives. Now, their handlers can rest easier knowing that their furry partners share the same protection that they have.  

“The main thing is just having the ability to provide as much protection and security to a working officer — ‘cause that’s what he is — as I have myself,” said Waynesville Officer Zachary Faulkenberry of his K9, Valor. “He’s a sworn officer just like I am, so he should have as much protection as any other officer.”

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Macon County commissioners voted unanimously last week to endorse a resolution stating that no new wilderness areas in Macon County would be a good thing. With the U.S. Forest Service in the midst of hashing out a new forest management plan, a document that will set the blueprint for the next 20 years, Jim Gray of the Ruffed Grouse Society brought the resolution to the commissioners’ June 8 meeting. He made the case that wilderness areas keep the Forest Service from using the full array of forest management tools available to them — namely, timber harvest. 

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Hospice House of WNC suffered a setback last week when the Franklin Board of Aldermen made a split decision not to support the organization’s application for a $100,000 Department of Commerce grant. 

“It’s a worthy cause. That was not the question,” said Verlin Curtis, vice-mayor. “The problem was it looked like that their raising the money and being able to complete the project on time was not going to happen.”

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Macon County’s project to turn the 48-acre Parker Meadows project into a tournament-level softball and baseball complex met some complications when construction turned up a Cherokee burial site. 

“You might hear rumors to that effect, so we’ll go ahead and confirm them,” County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said at the board’s July 8 meeting. 

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fr circleshopeMonty Williams didn’t know a whole lot about the Circles of Hope program when he sat down to his first training four years ago. All he knew was that he wanted to do something to help people in poverty escape it, and the program had the full endorsement of Mountain Projects Community Action Agency Executive Director Patsy Dowling. 

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After a closed session Monday, the Franklin Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to give Interim Town Manager Summer Woodard a permanent place in town hall. Woodard, who has been acting as town manager since Warren Cabe resigned in May, now has the job for good.

“We were unanimously very pleased with her work,” said Alderman Barbara McRae. “She is very qualified and has been an employee for years.”

Woodard, a Franklin native, received a master’s degree in public administration in 2010 and has worked for the town ever since, including serving as assistant to the town manager under three different managers. As a student, she did an internship that gave her experience working in every town department. 

The board voted to award her the same contract they signed with former manager Warren Cabe, an annual salary of $85,000. They did not go through a search process for the position, agreeing that Woodward was highly qualified and up to speed on everything happening in the town. 

“Since she proved herself, why go through the expense of a major search when we already had a viable candidate in-house?” asked Mayor Bob Scott. 

As part of the same discussion, the board also did some shuffling of positions in town hall, with the moves expected to save about $25,000. Woodard told the board she did not need an assistant but did not want to serve as human resources director, since that could cause a conflict of interest. 

“If you get into a conflict with an employee and the HR director decides something, the employee should have the opportunity to appeal,” McRae said, “and if the town manager and the HR person are the same individual, there’s nobody that you can appeal to.” 

The board gave the human resources job to Chad Simon, who has been working in the front office for several months, splitting the HR job with the town clerk position. Janet Anderson had been doing that job in addition to her responsibilities as finance director but now is continuing solely as finance director. 

“The town has grown and we have to look periodically at positions and how we can operate more efficiently,” Scott said.

— by Holly Kays, staff writer

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One month after low oxygen levels killed the bacteria needed to process sewage at the Cherokee Wastewater Treatment Plant, discharge flowing back into the Oconaluftee River is still on the cloudy side as employees work to get the plant fully back online. It’s not clear exactly what killed the bacteria, but the best guess is it has something to do with 8 tons of sand employees removed right around the time the bacteria crashed. 

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