Watauga Riverkeeper water sample

Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill collects water samples to have lab tested to determine the presence of e. Coli near the untreated wastewater discharge by the Cottages of Boone. Hill said he tested right by the Cottages, two locations downstream or the apartments as well as in the main stem of the Watauga River.

BOONE — The Cottages of Boone is facing a third civil penalty in the form of a monetary fine this year from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality after its Sept. 14 discharge of 4,725 gallons of untreated wastewater into a tributary of the Laurel Fork creek.

More than 70,000 gallons of untreated wastewater and more than 2.3 million gallons of treated wastewater has been released by the Cottages of Boone so far in 2021, according to documents from the NCDEQ. In total, these discharges amount to around 3.5 Olympic swimming pools worth of water.

“I’m rapidly losing patience with the Cottages of Boone, this is a pattern of negligence that is unacceptable,” said Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill.

This most recent discharge of untreated wastewater is not the first — or second — for the Cottages of Boone this year.

According to Hill, the Cottages have already paid twice this year for penalties from the NCDEQ. On June 10, Hill said the Cottages paid $22,621.33. Hill said the Cottages paid another $38,541.77 on July 2 due to wastewater discharges, numbers confirmed by NCDEQ letters of notification to the Cottages of Boone.

The Cardinal Group, which owns the Cottages of Boone, has not returned a request for comment as of publication.

Documents from the NCDEQ outline the Cottages’ repeated violations of their permit, which allows them to operate their wastewater facility on site.

A Mar. 15 letter from the NCDEQ notified the Cottages of permit violations from a 44 day long incident in which 2,343,056 gallons of treated wastewater overflowed from the wet weather storage tank. The NCDEQ letter stated that it is believed a majority of the wastewater discharged into a tributary of the Laurel Fork creek. Three permit violations were noted, including the fact that diversion or bypassing is prohibited and that the facilities must be effectively maintained and operated at all times to ensure no wastewater spillage.

From April 21 to April 23, another NCDEQ letter to the Cottages stated that untreated wastewater from the Cottages’ equalization tank discharged an estimated 70,000 gallons into an unnamed tributary of Laurel Fork. According to the letter, failure to clean a membrane in the system is reportedly what caused the event.

A Jul. 2 letter from the NCDEQ stated that the NCDEQ charged Wallace Loft LCC, the organization officially permitted for the Cottages’ wastewater facility, a civil penalty of $38,531.77.

The NCDEQ reported the Sept. 14 wastewater discharge did not reach the Laurel Fork Creek, however the water that hit the ground entered a nearby storm drain that ultimately enters the Laurel Fork creek tributary to the Watauga River.

The discharge, according to Lon Snider from the NCDEQ’s Water Quality Regional Operations Section, was caused due to a clogged suction line connected to a transfer pump within the Cottages’ wastewater plant.

“This is raw sewage,” Snider said, and stated that this type of water has contaminants like fecal coliform, the bacteria found in feces.

To understand the wastewater’s impact on the local waterways, Hill conducted water quality tests right by the Cottages, a few locations downstream of the apartments and lastly in the main stem of the Watauga River. By Thursday, Sept. 23, over a week after the wastewater discharge, Hill said water samples near the Cottages still had e. Coli levels twice the legal limit set by the EPA.

The tests Hill conducts are done according to lab standards set by IDEXX, a corporation which provides water testing equipment, as well as standards set by the North Carolina Riverkeepers Program. Hill and his team wear gloves and collect water in sterilized vials, which must be refrigerated until they reach the laboratory for testing.

“It’s pretty clear where it is coming from,” Hill said.

E. Coli, which comes from animal feces, can come from livestock or other animals defecating near waterways. Hill said farmers in the High Country follow regulations closely and that there really is not any e. Coli leaching from livestock into the Watauga River.

Although civil penalties from the NCDEQ are a beginning, Hill said he hopes in the future the Cottages are held to compliance and cease polluting the community’s waterways. In the meantime, he said he and MountainTrue, an environmental nonprofit with which he works, are looking into legal options to address the continuing issues with the Cottages of Boone.

Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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