SPRUCE PINE – The waters have been stormy this week for this small Mitchell County town.
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 spills this week.
On Wednesday, the county health department issued a closure order along the river after a sewage leak was detected. This followed a hydrofluoric acid spill from a quarry on Sunday that caused a fish kill.
Diane Creek, health director for Toe River Health District, said the department was notified Wednesday by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality that an “unknown amount” of sewage was seeping into the river.
“We placed eight signs along the river at Riverside Park around the three access points where people can swim and wade so people would be aware of the potential for a high bacteria count and to stay out of the water,” Creek said.
The signs are in English and Spanish.
The park has shallow areas as well as deeper pools, popular with families and young children during the summer.
Zan Price, DEQ assistant regional supervisor for water quality operations in Asheville, said the town discovered the sewage leak Wednesday in a sanitary sewer line crossing of Beaver Creek, a tributary of the North Toe River.
The leak of 20,000 gallons occurred upstream from Riverside Park. Price said he does not know how many gallons of sewage seeped into Beaver Creek or the North Toe, or how the spill occurred. A call to the town manager Thursday was not immediately returned.
Price said the leak was stopped Wednesday afternoon, but because of an unknown amount of bacteria in the water, the river remains closed to the public.
He said the DEQ requested the town take samples for fecal coliform upstream and downstream of the confluence of Beaver Creek and the North Toe. As of Thursday afternoon he was waiting for results to determine when the river would be safe again for humans.
The drinking water intake is about 6 miles upstream from the sewage discharge site, so it did not affect the town’s water supply, Price said.
“They don’t know how long it was leaking before they discovered it,” Price said. “They will most likely will be issued a notice of violation.”
The sewage spill was found “coincidentally” as the town was dealing with the aftermath of a hydrofluoric acid leak into the North Toe on Sunday, from Quartz Corp., a quarry production facility that sits on Altapass Highway and along the river.
The acid is used in the treatment of wastewater effluent, and discharges must meet a water quality standard of pH level between 6-10, Price said.
Price said an alarm sounds when the level drops below 6, indicating an unsafe level of acidity, which occurred Sunday afternoon when a hydrofluoric acid valve malfunctioned.
The low pH wastewater effluent violated their permit limit from 2:30-5:30 p.m.
The discharge killed some 45-50 fish in the North Toe River, where people were swimming and fishing. Creek said the health department did not issue a closure order because she only learned about the discharge on Tuesday, after calls from the public complaining about the dead fish.
Price said the leak was stopped but he doesn’t know how much of the acid seeped into the river. He said the company is required to issue a report within five days of the incident detailing how and why it happened and how cleanup is being addressed. That report is not yet available.
A call to Quartz Corp. Thursday was not immediately returned.
Since 1981 there have been six water quality violations by Quartz Corp., that resulted in fines, according to the DEQ.
On Sept. 11, 2017, the company was found in violation for a bypass of wastewater at the facility of 25,000 gallons and issued a fine of $3,000.
Quartz Corp. has not yet been issued a notice of violation for the Sunday spill, “but they will be,” Price said.