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Fish kill investigation continues



Article Published: Jul. 22, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Fish kill investigation continues

Lisenby displays a dead crayfish from Hodges Creek, following an alleged sealant leak from an area parking lot.



The sound of rushing water can't completely mar the whiz of traffic, just a few feet away on N.C. 105.

As the creek twists into shady greenery and the traffic lulls, it's hard to believe that the busy four-lane is just over that hill.

Hodges Creek, with clear water rushing over rounded stones, is a quiet break from the metropolitan. The creek serves an escape to those who live behind Troy's Diner and beyond and, until Saturday, it was home to a world many Boone residents didn't know existed, full of crayfish, darting creek chubs and trout.

Then Saturday happened.

"I was here and it was just a bunch of dead crawfish," Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby said.

Where clear water ripples today, dark specks floated Saturday and have since been carried away by rain water. Lisenby and her volunteers discovered 97 dead fish, mostly trout.

"The number of large trout killed will take more than a season, more than a year to recover," she said.

Monday, she, along with representatives from the N.C. Department of Water Quality (DWQ), strapped on water-proof boots and hit the creek to investigate an incident Boone Fire Department (BFD) first investigated as a "hazardous materials released" call Saturday.

The initial call came in just before 3 p.m. Saturday, prompting a two-hour investigation by BFD.

"We found that the parking lot at the BB&T (bank on Blowing Rock Road)... had recently been sealed, right before a heavy rain storm went through," firefighter Jimmy Ingold wrote in his report. "Most of the sealer was washed into the storm drains and then into the creek."

He noted white milky puddles in the parking lot and followed the substance, sealer smell and dead fish all the way to the Boone Mall.

That's when Lisenby was called in.

"A lot of the evidence is gone now," she said, picking through the rocks Monday.

"A homeowner smelled mothballs and called it in to the fire department," she said, pointing to the path the sealant might have traveled, from BB&T to near Benjamin Moore Paint Store.

DWQ took its own photographs. Winston Salem-based DWQ official Sue White left Boone not knowing where the investigation was headed. After all, her response to these incidents is routine.

"We don't really have any facts-facts," she said. "We do know that something occurred."

According to White, once the investigation is completed, the most that could happen to the construction company is a fine. As to when the investigation will conclude?

"It just depends on how forthcoming people are with information," she said.

And, so far, BB&T has yet to release the name of the construction company accused of releasing the sealant.

"We are investigating that right now, and we should have more information in the coming week," corporate communications spokesman Mary Tolbert said.

Lisenby hesitates to portray optimism. After all, as the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper, she's no stranger to these incidents. She investigates between six and seven locally each year. While she handles her job with curt professionalism, take her out of the creek, and her anger is evident. It's in the way she handles the dead crayfish ("There were hundreds of these, too many to count, Saturday," she said), and the sigh as she watches volunteers pour the bucket of dead fish back into the creek.

"People come and want to see these creeks protected," she said. "They invest in resources ... it's an investment. And then, boom! Some irresponsible person ruins it for everybody."

She equated it to someone spraying and killing an entire community garden.

"It's a waste," she said. "Personally for me, it's heartbreaking, because this is an entire web of life in our pristine mountain streams ... it's just a catastrophic loss."

And it's not just about the scenery. The trout the creek provide are a tourist resource, she said. "And now there are no trout," she said.

She's optimistic that those responsible will be fined, but whether the restitution will be enough to make up for what she calls an "environmental disaster?"

"We'll have to see," she said.

One good thing, however, has come from the incident: A visible outpouring of community support, thanks to a YouTube video Lisenby made Saturday that went viral on Facebook.

"We live in a great community, and people care," she said. "I'm so grateful to everybody who put the video on their Facebook walls."

For Lisenby, social media is just another way for the community to rally. "People deserve to know what's going on," she said.

The Mountain Times was with Lisenby and DWQ officials Monday as they continued to investigate the fish kill. Our photographs are in an album at http://www.mountaintimes.com.

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