Dozens of fish in North Toe River killed after quarry leak, state officials say

North Carolina officials say onsite reports indicate there were 40-50 dead fish near the Riverside Park area of the North Toe River on Monday. (Photo credit: NCDEQ)

Dozens of dead fish have died and are washing up on the banks of the North Toe River after a reported hydrofluoric acid leak at a Spruce Pine quarry, state officials say.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) Regional Supervisor Landon Davidson said the leak happened at Quartz Corp. on Sunday afternoon.

“There was discharge from a hydrofluoric acid valve on the storage container that overflowed into a secondary containment tray that catches spills or leaks," Davidson said. "That mixed with their normal effluent (wastewater) discharge.”

Davidson said onsite reports indicate there were 40-50 dead fish near the Riverside Park area in Spruce Pine on Monday.

Tuesday, moms Katrina Benfield and Nikki Bennett returned to the river with their children. They said they had all been swimming in the North Toe about 4 p.m. when they began to see dead fish float around them and wash ashore.

"I'm not happy at all," Benfield said. "I had my children in here. They fish, we eat the fish."

Bennett said everyone got out of the water as soon as they saw the dead fish.

"My daughter actually picked one up and said the scales looked like they had been burnt," she said.

The women said they saw a man on the pedestrian bridge over the river at Riverside Park on Sunday with a bucket. They said he seemed to be testing the water.

"About 30 minutes to 45 minutes later, that's when we started seeing the dead fish," Bennett said.

According to an enforcement history report of the facility, there have been six violation cases against Quartz Corp. since 1981.

Quartz Corp.'s James Garofalow said he had no comment on the spill or dead fish and referred News 13 to NCDEQ.

Davidson said the spill “doesn’t appear to be a danger to people, based on what we know about the event's short duration.”

He also said there are no surface or drinking water advisories in place related to the chemical release.

Spruce Pine Town Manager Richard Canipe, who saw the fish-kill Sunday, said the situation had nothing to do with the city.

“I don’t know what caused the fish to die," Canipe said. "The water has been tested, and the water quality is good.”

Cecilia McCool, 15, said her eyes began to sting and she began to feel light-headed while swimming in the river Sunday. Within 10 minutes, she said she began to see the fish floating and told friends and family to get out of the river.

Benfield said Spruce Pine officials have an obligation to the residents in the town they're supposed to represent. She said the public pool is very small, and often packed on hot summer days. She had this message to the town council.

"Help us protect our children, our beautiful place. If it's gonna kill fish, what will it do to our kids?" she asked.

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