The owner of a marina on Fishtrap Lake in Pike County said a swimming advisory unjustly hurt his business after millions of gallons of sewage spilled into a nearby river.
More than a million gallons of human waste poured into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River in Buchanan County, Va., every day for nearly three months starting in March. The spills were about nine miles upstream from the Kentucky border. From there, water flows about 10 miles before hitting the popular fishing and boating lake near Pikeville.
Buchanan County Public Service Authority officials said the last sewer pipe was fixed Tuesday, and there is no longer any waste flowing into the water. However, an advisory remains in effect, telling swimmers to avoid contact with the lake's headwaters.
The lake itself did not show high levels of E. coli, a type of bacteria found in human waste, so no warning was issued for it, according to the advisory. But many locals and tourists decided to avoid it anyway.
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Some strains of E. coli can cause serious illness.
"This rumor going around about the lake being contaminated is going to make this a ghost town," said Johnny Thacker, owner of Appalachian Marina. "That was a big misunderstanding; that's what killed my business."
There were two cars in Thacker's parking lot Tuesday afternoon, he said; normally there are at least 10. Thacker said the water looks clean and the fish are healthy.
The swimming advisory issued June 12 by the Kentucky Department for Public Health and the Kentucky Division of Water said contaminated areas of the river had high levels of E. coli, and that contact with the water could lead to diarrhea and disease.
Pike County resident Kenneth Taylor said that he and his family have mostly stayed away from the lake and that many other locals are following suit.
"(My daughters) tried to do some fishing down there at the bridge, but they didn't stay long. I guess it's in their mind what's going on," Taylor said. "I know I'm not going in there or using it anymore."
Taylor said trust is fading between the community and the Army Corps of Engineers, who operate the lake, and other Kentucky officials. Locals think that the water contamination is being downplayed and that officials are not properly distributing information, Taylor said.
"They just don't want to put sewage and Fishtrap Lake in the same sentence," Taylor said. "This went on for a long time without them saying much about it."
The spill began when rocks clogged sewage lines that ran underwater and on the bank of the Big Sandy River. When sewage couldn't pass through the clogs, it spilled through manholes into the water.
Virginia officials didn't tell Kentucky about the spill until May 18, about two months after it began, according to Dick Brown, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The state will continue to monitor the lake for E. coli, officials said.