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WNC’s Troubled Waters

leah kirk

north toes river pollution.jpg

WNC’s scenic trout waters have been in the news a lot this summer. Rightly lots of attention has gone to the fatalities at these places, especially the waterfall tragedies. Recently spills at the North Toe River and the Spruce Pine River has raised grave concern in a state that has done a pretty good job of hanging its hat on trout fishing.

               Last week Spruce Pine River near the small western North Caroline Mitchell County town of Spruce Pine and the North Toe River, which serves as a drinking water source and a major hub of outdoor recreation for fishing, swimming, wading and summertime cooling down, has been hit by two hazardous sewage spills.

The annual Spruce Pine Barbecue and Bluegrass Festival, a fundraiser for the town’s Rotary Club, got off to a shaky start that  Friday morning. Tents, bouncy houses, and music stages were going up in Riverside Park along the North Toe River, which had been closed since Wednesday after 20,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into the river just upstream of the park. The duckie race had to be canceled, as well as scheduled tubing trips, said Tina White, with the Rotary Club.

But a last-minute reprieve came as fecal coliform bacteria test results were received just after 3 p.m. Friday by N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division. Zan Price, the agency's assistant regional supervisor for water quality operations in Asheville, said the river’s bacteria levels were below the state standard of 200 units of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water.

The town on Tuesday discovered a broken collection system pipe for their municipal wastewater treatment system at the sanitary sewer line crossing of Beaver Creek, a tributary of the North Toe River, Price said.

Mitchell County’s health department posted on Wednesday a recreational use advisory for the park and areas immediately downstream, warning that high bacteria levels made it unsafe for swimming and wading.

The spill occurred when a terra cotta pipe broke, spilling into Beaver Creek, which washed into the North Toe, a source of drinking water for the town, Spruce Pine Town Manager Richard Canipe said. The spill occurred downstream from the intake valve, so it did not affect the water supply.

The North Toe River in Spruce Pine was reopened to the public Friday afternoon following a closure due to a town sewage spill Tuesday. The leak of 20,000 gallons occurred upstream from Riverside Park.