Trash floods this Kentucky lake. ‘Nobody wants to come spend money in a dirty place.’

Why this Kentucky lake traps trash from Virginia

Every year, islands of trash and debris float down the Levisa Fork river and pile up here, at Fishtrap Dam in Pike County. A marina owner says it’s ruined his business, and the lake manager says his crews do all they can with limited resources.
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Every year, islands of trash and debris float down the Levisa Fork river and pile up here, at Fishtrap Dam in Pike County. A marina owner says it’s ruined his business, and the lake manager says his crews do all they can with limited resources.

For 15 years, Johnny Thacker has operated the sole marina on Pike County’s Fishtrap Lake, and every year, he’s been fighting the same battle: attracting and keeping customers despite the heaps of trash and wood debris that pile up around his business.

After 15 years, Thacker said the trash may finally win.

Each spring, rainfall and flooding carry debris into the Levisa Fork river and its many tributaries, which feed the lake. The trash and debris — logs, sticks, and the occasional beaver dam — float miles downriver and eventually end up at one place: Fishtrap Dam, right next to Thacker’s marina.

Thacker put the marina up for sale in 2016, and is still searching for a buyer. He said he’s even dropped the asking price by $100,000 — from $300,000 to $200,000.

While the decline of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky has also contributed to the slump in Thacker’s business, he puts much of the blame on the trash. He said the lake’s manager, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, isn’t doing enough to remove the piled-up debris.

“I did have a thriving business here, and it’s down to nothing,” Thacker said. “The lake has been nasty for years. It needs to be cleaned, and to stay clean.”

Among people who frequent the lake, the amount of debris is so infamous that some disgruntled residents refer to it as “Trashtrap Lake.”

“I hate it every time somebody says that,” Thacker said. “Once it’s clean, it’s a beautiful lake.”

The dam was built in 1968 with the primary mission of mitigating flood damage for communities downstream, including the city of Pikeville. It also helps create a buffer for pollution that would otherwise travel downriver and into water treatment plants.

Flood mitigation and pollution control are still the dam’s two primary missions, but the lake is a favorite get-away spot for many anglers who target its healthy populations of smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish and walleye.

Trash and wooded debris pile up around Fishtrap Dam every year. The owner of the marina, seen on the lake’s horizon, said the debris has ruined his business. Will Wright

Fishtrap is one of the larger lakes in this corner of Eastern Kentucky, at more than 1,000 acres, and it attracts about 200,000 visits per year. Two of the other most popular lakes — Dewey Lake and Paintsville Lake — come in just shy of 1,000 acres. Boaters also frequent Fishtrap to cruise and admire the steep mountains and rocky outcroppings that jut up from the banks.

Rodney Holbrook, resource manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fishtrap, said the yearly invasion of debris is an unfortunate inevitability. With a 395-square mile watershed — more than 90 percent of which is in nearby Virginia — the lake will always collect debris from spring rainfall.

“I don’t try to ever diminish anyone’s concerns or anything, but it’s just something we have to deal with,” Holbrook said. “We could do a better job with it, but you have to ask, how much money do people want us to spend?”

The corps has spent about $100,000 this year on cleaning up debris at Fishtrap, Holbrook said. That’s about 7 percent of his total budget.

“When you talk about drift, it all comes down to money,” he said.

The corps contracts a boat called the “Trash Hunter” to help clean up the debris, but even with the specialized vessel, collecting and sorting trash and wood costs about $32 per square yard. Less than 10 percent of the debris that makes it to the dam is man-made, Holbrook said.

Volunteer groups work every year to collect trash as well. One of the organizations leading cleanup efforts is the Pike County chapter of Eastern Kentucky PRIDE, an initiative launched in the late 1990s to encourage residents to “take responsibility for protecting their environment” by providing education and coordinating projects, like the one at Fishtrap.

Since its inception, PRIDE groups throughout a 42-county service area have cleaned up more than 2,800 illegal dumps, 180,000 tons of trash and nearly 1 million tires, according to the initiative’s website.

Pike County PRIDE coordinator Jimmy Dale Sanders said his volunteers, including some from the Millard Fire Department and inmates from the Pike County Detention Center, collected 345 bags of trash from Fishtrap this year.

Still, he said, it’s not enough.

“When you come over that top (of the dam) and look down and see all that, it just turns you off,” Sanders said. “You’ll always have some wooded debris, but the man-made don’t need to be in there at all.”

Fishtrap Lake, as seen from the top of the dam. Every year, trash and debris pile up at the base of this Eastern Kentucky dam. Will Wright

Sanders said he hopes Kentucky legislators will work with their counterparts in Virginia to mitigate the amount of trash that comes into Kentucky.

“I think Virginia should do something to prevent it from coming down,” he said. “Whatever means they can do, they should do it.”

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents most of Eastern Kentucky, said in a statement to the Herald-Leader that his staff have been in contact with members of the Virginia congressional delegation “to work together on possible solutions to address debris drifting downstream.”

Past the dam, much of the lake is free of trash. During the late spring and early summer, the debris floats all the way to the dam, where it is corralled with buoy lines.

Holbrook said officials have tried to corral the trash before it reaches the dam by using heavy-duty buoy lines to push the trash into one of the lake’s many hollows.

The sheer volume of material, though, made it impossible.

“You thought it would’ve stopped a battleship,” Holbrook said. “Those cables broke like they were twine.”

Holbrook said he understands people’s frustrations about the cleanup process, and the impact the trash could have on any tourism efforts at the lake, but until he is authorized to spend more money, he said the debris will continue to be an unfortunate fixture at Fishtrap.

“Tourism is probably one of the economic futures of Pike County, and all of Eastern Kentucky, but nobody wants to come spend money in a dirty place,” Holbrook said. “It’s a battle that we feel like we win on occasion, but it’s a long war.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report For America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright