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Investigative Report: French Broad Contamination

A News 13 investigation uncovers harmful levels of E-coli and fecal coliform in our rivers and streams and even the French Broad River. Even more disturbing, Buncombe County health officials have chosen not to warn the public about this.

Swimming in a river with high levels of E-coli can make you very sick. If these areas were posted with a warning, people would know to stay out of the water. But we found that's not the case, so if you take a dip you may find yourself 'up a creek'. For some people straight-piping their sewage into a stream is an easy way to save some money. One Madison County resident tells us, "It's the cheapest form of septic removal."

Hartwell Carson and Kirby Callaway are the French Broad Riverkeepers and work with the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA). Carson says straight-piping is costly to the environment but some people would rather save money by not connecting to a sewer system, "If they don't think anyone's looking or cares then what's the motivation?"

Callaway echoes those concerns, "They don't think this stream is going to take the pollution anywhere." Each week, Callaway leads a group of volunteers to test local streams and creeks. She says, "We like to spread out and try to sample all the really small streams that probably DENR isn't going to be sampling." Most every small stream and creek in Western North Carolina eventually leads to the French Broad, carrying with it any contaminants, including raw sewage. Carson stresses the importance of keeping the river clean, "Over a million people drink out of the French Broad River, one way or another."

Every 2 years, DENR is required to monitor about 25% of the French Broad River; the rest is up to groups like WNCA. News 13 joined Callaway as she retested a small creek near Fletcher. She found high levels of E-coli there last year but, at the time, couldn't tell exactly where it was coming from. Then, just a few months ago, she says she managed to 'flush out' the culprits, "We heard a pipe, like water gushing out, and so we went in and sampled the pipe directly and we're so lucky we found it as they were gushing stuff out."

Callaway says the residents were straight-piping raw sewage into the creek. She says her tests confirmed extremely high levels of fecal coliform were being discharged from a pipe connected to the home, "It was about 15,000 E-coli per millimeter." The state limit is 200 so that's 75 times higher than the regulated level. The homeowner was subsequently cited but results from new tests confirm E-coli levels are now back to normal. Despite this, many parts of the French Broad are still contaminated with harmful levels of fecal coliform, which comes from human and animal waste. Carson warns, "Swimming in the French Broad when it's high levels of bacteria can make people very sick."

The state has identified 54 sections of the French Broad that are considered "impaired" or highly contaminated in some way. 14 of those sections are primarily contaminated with fecal coliform, with levels well above the state limit. Those sections include eight miles of the French Broad River along with several creeks and streams in Haywood, Madison, and Yancey counties that feed into it. That totals more than 52 miles of rivers and creeks that are highly contaminated with E-coli. We wanted to know how the public is being warned about these pockets of pollution.

Carson says, "It's hard to know and that's why the number one question we get asked is, 'Is my stream safe to swim?' Unfortunately they're not posted andthat's the job of the health department when areas are not safe to swim." Investigative reporter Mike Mason asked Carson if he has addressed this issue with Buncombe County Health officials and he replied, "I've asked them in certain and specific instances in the past, 'Will you guys post warnings?', and no one's been willing to do that." Mason then asked, "So how does the public even know about this?" Carson replied, "They don't, which is unfortunate."

Even though DENR's required to report the status of polluted sections of the French Broad every 2 years, state records show they haven't tested some areas for the past 20 years, since 1994. DENR officials say they're not federally required to conduct actual testing every 2 years and it's not practical since they're hindered by limited resources. DENR officials generally update their testing only when they find the water quality has improved and there's a reason to go out and retest it. DENR officials point out how they've developed some solutions related to mitigating mercury levels in fish tissue, which has been applied statewide, however, they do admit studies in other areas still need to be done. According to Hartwell Carson, "The effort to figure out the solutions as to why our streams are impaired, there's never been one done in Western North Carolina." Since 1972, the federal "Clean Water Act" has required states to study ways to address contamination. State records show DENR hasn't done that in many areas of the French Broad River Basin for years, although officials tell us they're working on it.

DENR compiles general data about contamination and counties decide whether to post signage. Buncombe County's health director, Gibbie Harris, tells us she hasn't received information about fecal coliform or any contamination along the French Broad River. People like Carson say the county's not being pro-active when it comes to protecting the public. More than 300 miles of the French Broad is on the state's "impaired streams list".

Click here for the the 2014 list of North Carolina's impaired streams, also known as the '303-(d) list.

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