More than a million gallons of raw sewage has been pouring each day into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River near Pike County for nearly three months.
The raw sewage has been leaking since March 4 in Buchanan County, Va., about nine miles upstream from the Kentucky border. Once in Kentucky, the water flows about 10 miles to Fishtrap Lake, a popular boating and fishing destination near Pikeville.
Officials in Virginia said harsh winter weather apparently compromised manholes, which allowed rocks and debris to clog a 20-inch diameter sewage line for hundreds of feet. When the sewage couldn't pass the clogs, it leaked through underwater manholes into the river.
The Virginia Mountaineer reported May 21 that more than 118 million gallons of sewage had poured into the river.
Kentucky officials were not notified of the spill until May 13, said Dick Brown, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
"Certainly the Department for Environmental Protection in Kentucky would appreciate knowing about these incidents as they become evident," Brown said. "It allows us to act quickly and mitigate any possible issues on our side of the border."
Virginia officials have been cooperative and helpful since alerting Kentucky to the spill, Brown said.
Allen Newman, a regional director for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said water quality tests in Virginia showed higher levels of bacteria than normal, and that an advisory was issued suggesting people avoid contact with the water. No such warning has been issued in Pike County, and tests from the Kentucky Division of Water showed little increase in bacteria or E. coli levels in Kentucky waters, according to state officials.
Rodney Holbrook, resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers at Fishtrap Lake, said his crew has not noticed anything out of the ordinary at the lake.
Sewage leaks can cause large algae blooms that suck up oxygen in the water, killing fish and damaging the surrounding ecosystem, but Holbrook said there have been no dead fish or algae blooms at Fishtrap Lake because of the sewage spill.
"So far so good," Holbrook said.
Crews with the Virginia Public Service Authority are working to clear the blockages, but it's a difficult project, said Gregory McClanahan, director of the Buchanan County Public Service Authority. The sewage pipe runs through mountainous terrain and underwater.
It took crews in Virginia about a week to find the clogs once the leaks became evident, McClanahan said.
Crews have made progress dealing with one 700-foot long clog near Grundy, Va., and some sewage is now reaching the Conaway Wastewater Treatment Plant rather than pouring into the river, he said.
McClanahan said he has requested more manpower to help clear the rest of the line, but does not know when it will be completely fixed.
"We're making great progress, (but) we'd like to go faster and that's why we're going to try and get two additional crews here next week to assist us," McClanahan said.
Newman said blockages and subsequent sewage leaks have happened before in the area, but not to this magnitude.
"This is the worst event in some years," Newman said.
Hank Graddy, water chairman of the Cumberland Branch of the Sierra Club, questioned the wisdom of swimming in the river or Fishtrap Lake and called the nearly three-month repair time "completely unacceptable."
"This sounds like way too much sewage to be going into anybody's water," Graddy said. "That's no way to run a sewage system."
Pike County resident Kenneth Taylor said he is worried about tourists swimming in the lake, and that there is a visible layer of a grease-type substance on the waters' surface in some areas.
Taylor said there have been fewer people swimming recently, but that only the locals who know of the upstream sewage leak have stayed out of the water.
"It'll probably be a long time before I'm comfortable getting in that water," Taylor said. "It's a mess. People are still using (the lake), and I'm sure people shouldn't be swimming in there."
Taylor said he thought that state officials should be more open with the public.
"There ought to be a better way to let the public know," Taylor said. "Why would Virginia (issue an advisory), and Kentucky not? It's the same waterway."