Trash from Virginia floods this Kentucky lake every year. Who should clean it up?

A Democratic lawmaker and candidate for Pike County judge-executive has asked the governors of Kentucky and Virginia to work together on a plan to clean up a federally-managed lake in Eastern Kentucky that fills with trash and debris each year.

Following a Herald-Leader report on the trash-filled lake that was published last month, Kentucky Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, sent letters requesting help from Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat.

Every year since the construction of Fishtrap Dam in 1968, trash and wooded debris from Kentucky and Virginia — more than 90 percent of the lake’s watershed is in Virginia — have flooded the Pike County lake, creating islands of trash and logs that impede boats and curb the lake’s potential as a tourist destination.

In his letters, Jones said the trash has stifled economic development in Pike County, which, like many other Eastern Kentucky counties, has struggled with high rates of unemployment and low wages compared to the rest of the state, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“When people drive up there to Fishtrap and you look at the amount of trash and debris in the lake, it’s appalling,” Jones said in an interview with the Herald-Leader. “Maybe this is something that needs to be litigated. It’s not fair to the people of this county.”

Jones, an attorney, will face Republican Kevin Hall in November for the county’s judge-executive seat. Both candidates said they would work toward solving the debris problem at Fishtrap, though the lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Hall criticized Jones for not speaking up more forcefully in previous years.

“Ray’s had plenty of opportunities to address this issue,” Hall said. “This thing’s happened ever since they built Fishtrap.”

Hall said he would push for increased enforcement of illegal dumping and littering laws in Pike County, and advocate for curbing the spread of invasive plant species like Kudzu, which he said contribute to the wooded debris that flood the lake.

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

One of the last significant meetings aimed at addressing Fishtrap’s trash problem happened in Pikeville in July 2015, when officials met with Peter Goodman, director of Kentucky’s Division of Water.

According to an article by KyForward, Goodman said at that meeting he would work with officials in Virginia, the Army Corps of Engineers and others to find a solution.

That never happened, Jones said.

John Mura, a spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Water, said the division is “ready, willing and able” to move forward on a strategy for managing debris at Fishtrap, but that the division needs a local partner to spearhead the effort.

That partner could be a governmental agency, a non-profit, or some other local organization, Mura said.

“We can’t develop a plan in a vacuum,” Mura said. “This is a local issue.”

The division would also need cooperation from officials in Virginia, Mura said.

The debris issue is not the first time Virginia and Kentucky officials butted heads over Fishtrap.

About a month prior to the 2015 meeting, news broke that millions of gallons of sewage poured into the Virginia section of the Levisa Fork, which feeds Fishtrap Lake, for more than a week before Kentucky officials were notified.

“Basically they had hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage that leaked into the river and came right into Fishtrap and they didn’t even tell us about it,” Jones said in an interview last week. “That’s inexcusable.”

Jones acknowledged that the county judge-executive holds little power to change the lake’s debris management protocol, but said he would work to facilitate dialogue between Kentucky and Virginia, and with the Army Corps of Engineers, in hopes of finding a solution.

Fishtrap Dam was constructed in 1968 with the primary mission of flood control for downstream communities, including the city of Pikeville.

Of Fishtrap’s annual budget of about $2.08 million, the corps designates about $100,000 for debris clean-up. As of August 31, the corps had spent about $114,000 on debris removal in fiscal year 2018, according to Brian Maka, a spokesman for the corps’ Huntington district, which includes Fishtrap.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents most of Eastern Kentucky, said Rogers will meet next week with the Assistant Secretary of the Army “to express his displeasure at the current state of affairs and his expectation that the Corps implement a remediation plan.”

A lack of education and enforcement of littering and dumping laws contribute to the debris problem at Fishtrap, Maka said in an email to the Herald-Leader.

The corps is currently considering strategies to minimize the impact of debris at Fistrap, he said.

“We know that the Corps of Engineers is one of the leading providers of water based recreation in the country,” Maka said. “We take this mission seriously and balance the efforts of the lake staff to try to minimize the negative impacts of the debris.”

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