BOONE — An estimated 70,000 gallons of untreated wastewater were discharged to Laurel Fork Stream within the Watauga River Basin when the Cottages of Boone experienced a discharge of untreated domestic wastewater, according to a press release from a Charlotte-based law firm on May 3.
The discharge is believed to have started late Wednesday, April 21, and ended at approximately 8 a.m. on Friday, April 23. The discharge occurred when an equalization tank overflowed while work was being conducted on the wastewater treatment system, according to the release.
The release stated that the Cottages of Boone notified the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources about the discharge on the morning of and is cooperating with regulators in their review of the matter.
“The Cottages are giving this matter its full attention and is reviewing maintenance processes and procedures at the wastewater treatment system with the aim of preventing future incidents,” the release stated.
It also stated that no action by the public is recommended at this time and that additional information would be provided if necessary.
Lon Snider, environmental regional supervisor with North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said the Cottages of Boone could receive a fine.
When maintenance occurs on a wastewater treatment system, Snider said it can cause it to overflow. Because of that potential for overflow, Snider had sent staff from the NCDEQ to observe the maintenance and watch for an overflow.
Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill said this kind of discharge is fairly common, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. By law, Hill said a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit holder has to notify the public within a week of the discharge with a letter to the newspaper of record if there is a sanitary sewer overflow.
The discharge from the Cottages of Boone was not sanitary sewer overflow so no press release or public notification was required by law, but Snider said his department asked the Cottages of Boone to send out a press release because of the nature of the spill.
NPDES permits will specify an acceptable level of a pollutant in a discharge (for example, a certain level of bacteria) in order to protect water quality. More information on NPDES permits can be found at tinyurl.com/3aausncn.
Hill said that typically under a condition of the permit, if a system has been overrun, it can be opened up.
“What we’re talking about here is 70,000 gallons of untreated wastewater was discharged or dumped into Laurel Creek, which drains into the Watauga River,” Hill said. “Let’s be clear, untreated wastewater is (feces). It’s human waste. It’s stuff that you definitely, 100 percent do not want in your mouth, on your body or in your drinking or swimming water.”
Laurel Fork Stream goes above Camp Broadstone and above the Valle Crucis Community Park.
“I think 70,000 gallons of untreated human wastewater is too much for a little creek to bear,” Hill said.
To help keep rivers clean, MountainTrue — an environmental organization working toward sensible land use, restoring public forests, protecting water quality and promoting clean energy — has an “I Love Rivers” campaign.
Hill — who is also the High Country regional director for MountainTrue — said part of the campaign is advocating for a modernization of how places that have an untreated wastewater discharge report it.
Hill said some changes his organization wants to see could perhaps be community members opting in to a text or message service where they’re automatically notified if there’s a discharge in their watershed.
Hill said that’s part of the reason the Watauga Riverkeeper has its swim guide program because the “public deserves to know” what’s in their water.
The weekly swim guide program takes place between May and September — key swim season. Each week, volunteers will test for E. coli bacteria at 16 sites throughout the watershed. The information is then plugged into the swim guide which can be found at www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/wautauga-riverkeeper/.
But those tests are only a snapshot in time of the river quality, Hill said.
“A week from now, it’s a different river,” Hill said. “It’s always moving so water quality testing is just a snapshot of that exact moment in time because rivers are always flowing.”