A maze of pores and rock fractures in the Appalachian Mountains make it one of the most complex hydrological systems on the planet. More than half the population here relies on groundwater, but the fundamental question of how many wells the landscape can support remains a mystery.
It’s Dave Kinner’s favorite question for new geology students: how porous is the ground underfoot?
“Feel’s solid doesn’t it?” Kinner asked, stomping his foot up and down, making a flat, muffled thud as it hit the earth.
But in fact, 30 to 40 percent of what’s down there is water, seeping, trickling and percolating through the soil and rock layers — and hopefully, if we’re lucky, making its way to the tens of thousands of drinking wells that pepper the mountainsides of Western North Carolina.
“If we are going to be building more houses in this area, is there enough water for everybody?” asked Kinner, assistant geology professor at Western Carolina University. “At what point would they run out of water? That data is not really out there.”
WCU has emerged as ground zero in the field of groundwater research. An outdoor lab on a mostly wooded tract at the edge of campus sports a cluster of well heads poking up here and there, and in one spot, a tangle of wires sticking out of the soil and a rain gauge mounted on a stick.
While unassuming — particularly since most of the apparatus lies underground — the research is plowing new ground in the field of hydrogeology.
“We have some of the most complex rock types anywhere in the world,” said Brett Laverty, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality in Asheville. “We know very little about how groundwater moves in this area.”
And, as a result, very little about the carrying capacity for an increasing number of wells being drilled into the mountainsides.
Several summers over the past decade have brought drought conditions to Western North Carolina. Springs that flowed for generations suddenly dried up. Wells that had worked fine before suffered from low flows. New homeowners had to go deeper than ever before to find water.
Kinner hopes the research at WCU will figure out how much rain is actually making it through the top few feet of soil and into the underground aquifer.
Right now, the rate of groundwater “recharge” is a mystery, Kinner said. How quickly groundwater is replenished, compared to how quickly it is being used, is the fundamental question.
“Will it run out before it can recharge?” Kinner said.
The question attracted the interest of the National Science Foundation, which recently made a $200,000 grant to fund the ongoing project at WCU.
Luckily, recharge in the Appalachian mountains is rather quick, compared to underground aquifers in the Southwest that took thousands of years to accumulate but are being used up in a matter of decades.
But even in this temperate rainforest of the Smokies, groundwater isn’t an unlimited resource, and there are lots of variables at play that Kinner and his geology students are probing.
On steep slopes, rain tends to run off instead of soaking in.
Torrential downpours likewise run off instead of soaking in. And if the topsoil is hard and dry, absorption is even more subpar.
Unfortunately, few rains this past summer were the good slow soakers needed for recharge, according to the technical instruments monitored by Kinner and his students.
Rain gauges record both the amount of rain and how fast it comes down. Meanwhile, moisture sensors at various depths and a smattering of nearby test wells record how deep the rain is penetrating and whether it is actually reaching the groundwater table.
Kinner and his students will soon add their very own rain maker to the mix. A rainfall simulator, a homemade contraption sporting a shower head on a giant tripod hooked to a 200-gallon tank, can be maneuvered into place to test absorption on varying slopes and varying types of “rain.”
Mountain aquifers are defined by fractures, akin to ant tunnels in the rocks, ranging from visible veins to microscopic cracks.
How many — and how big they are — make or break a well.
“It is all about fractures. The more fractures you have in the bedrock intersecting a well, the more fractures you will find conveying that water,” Laverty said.
But the maze of fractures below the ground are completely random.
“A well driller who pulls up in your yard can’t say ‘I think the northeast corner will have more fractures than the southeast corner,’” Laverty said.
In the old days, a bucket lowered by a rope into a hand-dug well seemed to serve the early settlers fine. But that would hardly suffice today, not only because a shallow well like that is susceptible to contamination, but the water table at such shallow depths doesn’t have the volume or reliability modern households demand.
Wells drilled today are like a giant tube-shaped colander. The water seeps through tiny holes to fill the shaft. If the shaft doesn’t cross paths with the fractures and veins that carry water underground, however, it won’t fill up.
When that happens, drillers may turn to hydrofracking, which forces fractures in the rock to split open larger and pull more water into the well. This doesn’t always bode well for flow of other wells nearby, which can possible lose some of their pressure.
While WCU’s groundwater research will go a long way toward answering fundamental questions about how fractured rock aquifers behave in the mountains, it won’t tell us definitively, in each and every case, how many wells are too many. The geology is so site specific, that no single model that could be applied to all of Western North Carolina.
“The aquifers here are very dissected, and the fractures control everything here,” Laverty said.
But, if baseline data existed, carrying capacity could be calculated for a particular mountainsides.
“If you do have a subdivision in a particular watershed, you can start looking at that question,” Laverty said.
In Jackson County, groundwater recharge took a lead role in the debate over development regulations four years ago. The rules imposed a sliding scale for the size of house lots: the steeper the slope, the larger the lots have to be. The reasoning: on steep slopes, more surface area is needed to achieve adequate groundwater recharge, according to county planners at the time.
Unfortunately, climate change doesn’t bode well for groundwater recharge.
“One of the larger questions in terms of recharge is, as our climate changes, it will become drier overall and the rain we do have will be more intense,” Kinner said.
Laverty also believes the changing weather patterns of global climate change is bad news for groundwater recharge in the mountains.
“In the past we had rainfall that is spread out, good soaking rains, but now we are going to be seeing more heavy rains that come like a monsoon,” Laverty said.
Laverty said there’s a lot riding on groundwater aquifers in the mountains — around 50 percent of the population here has wells.
“If we have summers with prolonged droughts, a lot of communities could be in trouble. If your well runs dry where do you go?” Laverty said.
There are steps developers can take to help homeowners down the road capture rain and channel it into the ground rather than allowing it to run off. Things like rain gardens and bioswails collect rainfall and give it a chance to soak it before running down the mountain, Laverty said.
“If you want your little subdivision to survive and have enough water for everybody, that is something you need to take a look at,” Laverty said.
Kinner, along with Mark Lord, head of the WCU geology department, recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support their research.
All together, there are 40 wells of varying depth scattered across three plots on the WCU campus.
The wells were drilled last year courtesy of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is intensely interested in how mountain aquifers work.
The research also aims to understand how shallow groundwater moves laterally through the soil near creeks. Creeks, in essence, are an above ground manifestation of ground water. Creeks are far from static systems, coursing downhill irrespective of the subterranean groundwater around them.
In fact, groundwater not only moves through the soil into creekbed, but in some cases seeps back out of the creeks into the surrounding soil.
This transport of shallow water across soils is being monitored at many of WCU’s test well sites.
There’s another element to the groundwater research that has nothing to do with water, aquifers or hydrology. The geology professors are studying whether undergraduate research approached as a class helps students learn.
WCU has always been big on research. It is actually a requirement of all geology majors.
“The idea is students learn best if they are actually doing things,” Kinner said.
In the past, students undertook an individual research project for a semester, usually in their senior year. This project will engage students from intro to upper level courses, up and down the geology curriculum, allowing the professors to plug different classes in to the long-range research project.
“The grant will allow us to ask the question, ‘How do students at all levels of the geology curriculum benefit from research-based learning?’” Kinner said.
Research fellows will be hired to mentor students engaged in the project. But the applied science will serve a greater good as well.
“We are basically growing more geologists and hydrologists in this area to look at these questions,” Kinner said.
For two decades, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association in Franklin has been monitoring the health of the river’s water basin from north Georgia to Fontana Lake.
Last week, the group released a State of the Streams report, showcasing both its work and what has been found over the years, particularly the trends from 2002 through 2010. The unveiling took place at a noon luncheon of the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, with about 30 people in attendance.
Overall in the upper Little Tennessee River watershed, two worrisome points stand out, according to the report. Monitoring of threatened and endangered species in the mainstream below Franklin suggests that the decline of native mussels is long term and not just cyclical; and a fish species, the Wounded Darter, has almost completely disappeared from the Cullasaja River.
The good news? The most significant development was the closing in 2006 of the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabun Gap, Ga., which the group said accounted for more than 95 percent of the total permitted industrial discharges to the entire watershed.
While the closing was hard on those whose livelihoods were dependent on the plant (30 percent of the workforce was from Macon County), benefits were almost immediately visible in the downstream ecosystem. This included the recovery of riverweed, an aquatic plant of the Little Tennessee.
Additionally, in Highlands, macroinvertebrates from Mill Creek are showing slow but continual recovery following the late 1990s shutdown of the Highlands sewer plant.
The condition of the river in the now-protected Needmore area (since 1999) also suggests that positive actions have, at the very least, “counterbalanced” negative trends. The Needmore tract, purchased from Duke Energy to protect it from development through a combination of private and public funding, has been under management by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2002.
“Thirteen miles of free-flowing river, no houses or bridges — that’s a pretty unique thing in this part of the world. It’s a really exceptional piece of river,” Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist who has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for at least two decades, said of the Needmore stretch of the Little Tennessee River.
Additionally, “we are relatively blessed that we don’t have a lot of point-source pollution,” McLarney said. “Habitat modification and sedimentation is the biggest problem here … that’s what we need to focus the most attention on if we want to see healthier streams.”
Jason Meador, the watershed program coordinator for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said the group focuses on a “holistic approach.” The staff and the many volunteers involved don’t just study fish, they also look at and study everything involved in a healthy watershed.
That’s also involved restoration projects, such as taking out culverts and replacing them with bridges, such as the group did on Bradley Creek. The culverts — essentially places where a stream is forced into a giant pipe to pass under a road — often block fish from being able to travel freely up and down tributaries, particularly if the culvert is crumbling, Meador said.
Additionally, the culverts often can’t handle big storm flows, flushing excess sediment.
The upper Little Tennessee watershed covers 450 square miles of forests, fields, towns and communities in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.
With headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia at the confluence of Billy and Keener creeks, the Little Tennessee River flows north and northwest for 55 miles, unimpeded for its entire length except for Porters Bend Dam, which forms the relatively tiny (250 acre) Lake Emory in the town of Franklin. Before reaching Lake Emory, the river makes its way through a flat, wide valley, dropping less than 50 feet of elevation in more than 10 miles of channel length. Here, the valley is defined by the Nantahala mountains to the west and the Fishhawk mountains and Blue Ridge escarpment to the east.
The stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Lake is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians, making it unique among the Blue Ridge rivers to have escaped much of the industrial pollution that has degraded so many other rivers in the region, according to the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
While Haywood County’s bid for privatizing the White Oak Landfill is still being considered, the site has now drawn the eye and ire of residents on its borders who fear contamination of their wells by its contents.
The citizens, led by White Oak resident Sylvia Blakeslee, have approached the county to request that 32 of the wells in their community be tested for heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Blakeslee said she and her neighbors in the White Oak community are concerned because of the recent infractions the landfill faced, including waste being found outside the liner that was, at best guess, up to 10 years old, according to Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King. Blakeslee said they’re also worried by the relatively unstable geologic structure beneath the landfill, pointing to a 1990 hydrogeologic report that warned of “high potential for groundwater contamination.”
“My well is the most critical,” said Blakeslee, who produced a topographic map marking the locations of several wells along the edge of the landfill. “That’s why I’m concerned.”
Her request, however, wasn’t granted by the county, who passed it on to the Asheville regional office of the state Division of Water Quality. They, in turn, realizing that the matter was under the jurisdiction of the state’s solid waste group, tossed it up the chain once more. The request landed with Ervin Lane, a compliance hydrogeologist for the North Carolina Division of Waste Management.
He hasn’t come up with an answer yet, but said he’s looking at testing data from the last 10 years to as recently as April to see if the wells do need to be tested.
“We just look at the data to determine if we think that there is an immediate threat,” said Lane, adding that “the landfill is not really in close proximity of where the wells are located, so we have to just take it step by step.”
King, however, doesn’t see a need for the wells to be tested. He said test wells that actually border or sit within the bounds of the landfill have never turned up any abnormal or increased results for heavy metals or VOCs, and even the ground underneath the off-liner waste wasn’t contaminated, much less the groundwater.
“There was no evidence at all that it even contaminated the ground,” said King. “The clay acted like a natural barrier. We tested a foot underneath the waste and all the way around it and didn’t even find any contamination in the dirt itself.”
But, he said, if Lane returns with evidence that the wells need to be tested, then he will take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of residents’ groundwater.
For her part, Blakeslee said her intention is not to stir trouble. However, when she heard of a possible plan to privatize the landfill, she shifted into gear, poring through papers and thoroughly researching the landfill’s history and possible future.
That’s when concerns about her groundwater and that of her neighbors began to surface. Fearing a rush decision on the site’s possible sale by county commissioners, she passed around a petition and forwarded the paper, with its 40 signatures, to County Manager David Cotton. Her fear, she said, is finding waste in her wells after privatization and being stuck to deal with the consequences on her own.
“I don’t think I have any contamination. I don’t want to have it,” said Blakeslee. “I just want to find out before they sell it [the landfill] off, because then what recourse do I have?”
She concedes that neither she nor any of her neighbors have found or noticed contaminated water, and King and Lane were both unsure of the residents’ motivations for requesting tests now.
But, as Blakeslee said, many of them are concerned about what will happen if site operations are turned over to a private company. Even if their wells get turned down for testing, she said, she will continue to lobby commissioners to research thoroughly any proposal to bring outside trash into White Oak.
“The way to solve it is not to throw it off on somebody else,” said Blakeslee. “Because this has got far, far reaching consequences if the wrong decision is made.”
In a committee meeting on Monday, county commissioner Mark Swanger assured staff and residents that they were in no rush to pawn off the landfill and would wait for all the information before making any recommendations or decisions.
Blakeslee said that’s all she’s asking from the county commissioners: the best, most-informed decision.
I just want them to make the right decision,” she said. “We have a beauty spot and we don’t want it to turn into a boil then a cancer.”
Ed Williams is an expert when it comes to spotting the telltale signs of sewage seeping into creeks.
“You get an eye and a nose for it,” Williams said. “You put the boots on and get in. You just start at the mouth and walk up, keeping your eyes open and looking for funny smells, too.”
Williams has put his reconnaissance skills to work along the primary urban creeks running through Waynesville and Sylva. He’s found sewage oozing from the tip of storm pipes, seeping from soil along the banks and even bubbling out of manhole covers.
Williams runs a special unit of the N.C. Division of Water Quality that restores polluted or impaired mountain creeks. Both Richland and Scotts creek were flagged due to high bacteria counts associated with raw sewage.
Two years later, however, the once unhealthy levels of fecal coliform in the creeks are under control. Both creeks are popular for recreation. Children wade and splash in Richland Creek as it courses through the Waynesville Recreation Park. Fishermen can be seen from the greenway along its banks most afternoons.
At the mouth of Scott’s Creek in Sylva, a public park serves as a put-in for dozens of rafters and paddlers daily in the summer. Some swim and float in Scott’s Creek while waiting their turn to launch.
“It is wonderful for people who are waiting for their kayak and raft shuttles to cool themselves off without risk of getting some disease,” said Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River. “Based on the old data, it was unwise. Now it is safe.”
Figuring out where and how the raw sewage was getting into the creeks wasn’t simple, however. Sylva and Waynesville are both riddled with aging sewer lines that often spring underground leaks. The creeks are also plagued by failing private septic systems and even remnants of straight-piping — once a common practice in the early days of indoor plumbing when pipes simply ran through the yard and dumped into the creek out back.
Before Williams dons his waders for an in-stream survey, he spends weeks creating a map of potential hot spots. He takes periodic water samples the length of the creek — as well as side branches — and sends them off to the lab for analysis.
The results give him a snapshot of where the fecal coliform counts are highest.
“The numbers make it blatantly obvious that there is something going on in an area,” Williams said.
Along Richland Creek, Williams sampled 75 points from Lake Junaluska to its headwaters in Balsam.
Sometimes, finding the culprit on the ground wasn’t easy, however. Occasionally, Williams had to smoke them out.
Workers with the town of Waynesville’s sewer department would open up manholes and pump smoke into the lines while Williams and his team watched for it to seep up from the ground, revealing the spot in the line where the leak is.
Other times, they slipped a little green dye into the sewer line, while Williams stood in the creek looking for a green plume.
Along one stretch, high readings clearly indicated a hot spot but even the smoke and dye trick was unable to turn up a leak in the town’s lines. Not easily stumped, Williams cast about for other suspects and settled on a restaurant which sits along the creek. When his team flushed green dye down the restaurant’s toilets, sure enough, the creek turned green just seconds later.
Williams said the town of Waynesville spends $250,000 a year systematically repairing sewer lines. The town was willing and eager to work with Williams targeting the leaks and quickly fixed them.
In Sylva, Williams traced most of the problem to just two main offenders. One was an overflowing manhole. It wasn’t hard to spot the sewage bubbling out of it, Williams said. The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority patched the leak.
Along a side branch, Williams found a failing septic tank draining into the creek.
“It looked as if someone had rammed a pipe into the septic field to release the pressure and that was going into creek,” Williams said.
The homeowner didn’t have the money to fix the problem, however, but she was able to get financial assistance through the Waste Discharge Elimination Program, a state initiative to pinpoint and fix failing septic tanks.
Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek initially came to the state’s attention thanks to regular sampling done by volunteers from the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee.
“We petitioned the state to come down and take a look,” Clapp said.
The state got similar results, and Scott’s Creek was put on the impaired list in 2005.
“I had no idea at that point that it would be down to the level it is now,” Clapp said.
There are 490 miles of stream in the 19 western counties on the state’s list of impaired waters. There are several reasons a creek or river lands on the black list. One is bacteria from raw sewage. Another is high loads of sediment and erosion, or a deficiency of aquatic life.
The state hasn’t always been involved in fixing streams. It listed impaired waters but had no staff to do anything about the bad news.
“As far as a hands-on approach, we hadn’t done that so much,” Williams said.
In 2007, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources began its first-ever stream restoration program.
Richland and Scott’s creeks were the first in the 17-county area chosen to get help. It was a lucky break, since only a couple of waterways could be tackled at a time.
Priority goes to those with critical habitat for endangered species or popular creeks for recreation — which is why both Richland and Scott’s creeks were picked.
A 2007 article in The Smoky Mountain News about the public health risk at the rafting put-in at Scott’s Creek was a major factor in its selection, as well as lobbying by WATR, Williams said.
WATR volunteers often serve as the eyes and ears for the state water quality division, which doesn’t have the staff to sample all the streams that need monitoring. Haywood Waterways Association serves the same role in Haywood County.
This fall, WATR has partnered with Western Carolina University environmental science students to sample Savannah Creek, another hot spot in Jackson County for fecal coliform, and to do follow-up monitoring along Scott’s Creek to make sure high levels don’t resurface.
“It is exciting that WATR and our partners will be testing more streams to confirm clean water or to identify problems,” Clapp said.
Meanwhile in Waynesville, Richland Creek is still parked on the list of impaired waters. The reason: it lacks key aquatic species that a mountain stream should have.
Decades ago, pollution from Waynesville factories wiped out species. While the water is cleaner now, fish haven’t been able to repopulate Richland Creek.
“Lake Junaluska stands in the way as a barrier to fish migration, so we have had to physically pick the fish up and bring them up there,” Williams said.
Several species are being reintroduced and should improve Richland Creek’s biological integrity, and eventually get it off the list of impaired waters. The N.C. Wildlife Commission and Tennessee Valley Authority have helped with the reintroductions.
“Whatever it takes to fix the stream, we are trying to do,” Williams said. “We can never really say mission accomplished and go home and it is fixed. You have to keep monitoring forever.”
Fecal coliform levels in Scott’s Creek show marked improvement following efforts in 2007 to cleanup sources of contamination
State standard 200
Average reading in 2005 2,150
Average reading in 2008 170
Average reading in 2009 100
Average reading in 2010 130
* Measured in fecal units per 100 milliliters of water. Samples taken at the mouth of Scott’s Creek just before its confluence with the Tuckasegee River. Data provided by Division of Water Quality.
The Harrison Construction rock quarry, which mines rock used in road building, was issued a notice of violation on July 8 from the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The violations carry the potential for hefty fines, but if problems are fixed immediately, fines usually aren’t imposed.
The quarry has been in the limelight over the past three months due to a controversial expansion plan. Neighbors fed up with the quarry’s practices had complained to state officials about mud running off the quarry and into the creek, and even documented it themselves in photographs.
Neighbors’ action prompted the first water quality inspection of the site in more than four years, which resulted in the violations. Creek samples taken upstream of the quarry were pristine compared to immediately downstream where sediment levels were 100 times higher than what’s allowed under state standards.
Sediment-laden rainwater was running off three areas of the quarry and into Allens Creek unchecked, according to the inspection report. While the quarry had erosion safeguards elsewhere on site, three areas lacked such measures. Runoff from quarry walls, dirt roads, crushing operations and even the asphalt waste pile flowed off the site and into the creek without first passing through erosion check points, according to the report.
The quarry should have noticed the problem itself and alerted state water quality officials. Failing to do so was among six violations the quarry was cited for.
“If they see a bunch of turbid water blowing out, we expect them to let us know they are having issues and what they are doing to fix it,” said Linda Wiggs, a state water quality official in Asheville. “We don’t want to hear it from someone else.”
Wiggs was among a team of four people who inspected the quarry site on June 26. Their official report from the inspection was made public last week. The quarry has until July 26 to explain why turbidity standards were violated and why the Division of Water Quality hadn’t been notified.
Harrison officials did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment for this article.
As a result of the violation, the quarry will have to take water samples in Allens Creek on a monthly basis and send them to state water quality officials until further notice. Normally, the quarry would only have to sample the creek twice a year.
The quarry was also cited for failing to keep proper erosion records. The quarry is supposed to monitor how well its sediment safeguards are working in weekly inspections and keep a log of erosion maintenance.
For example, earthen dams that slow down rainwater and trap sediment before it reaches the creek can quickly become backlogged and must be cleaned out regularly — something that should be noted in the quarry’s log book.
Another technique is to divert muddy water into giant retaining ponds where sediment settles to the bottom. The ponds, too, have to be dug out to maintain the holding capacity.
The quarry’s maintenance logs were inadequate, however.
“They were generalizing a lot of their erosion control inspections. I told them they needed to be more specific,” Wiggs said.
As part of its self-policing, the quarry is supposed to assess its erosion safeguards within 24 hours of a rainfall of half an inch or more, per state water quality standards. But the quarry’s environmental compliance manager splits his time between seven rock quarries — one in each of the seven western counties. Wiggs said that it’s too big a job for one person in the report.
“If they think they can be compliant with one guy running around to that many areas, that’s fine, but we felt like ‘Well, let’s get some other folks doing this,’” Wiggs said.
The inspection report warned that failing to monitor runoff “because personnel are not available during a discharge event is not an acceptable practice.”
Fixing the problem
The quarry must now figure out what new erosion safeguards are needed to stop the unchecked runoff — but also exactly where all the water is coming from, Wiggs said.
Quarry workers told Wiggs they didn’t realize muddy water was escaping from the site without first passing through erosion checkpoints. Quarry workers told Wiggs they thought the water running off the site was clean groundwater seeping out of the excavated pit.
Quarries inevitably hit the groundwater table, and pools of water form in the pits. Quarry workers told Wiggs they thought the pools were merely overflowing, and therefore, they weren’t paying attention to it.
In reality, the runoff from the quarry’s bare slopes and water used to spray down crushing operations — both laden with sediment — were mingling with the pit water, Wiggs said.
“It is recommended a thorough evaluation of this entire drainage take place,” the report states.
The quarry must have a sediment and erosion control plan on file with the state as part of its mining permit. That plan was inadequate, however, as it shows only two locations where runoff leaves the quarry when in reality there are five, Wiggs said.
State mining inspectors had consistently deemed the quarry “in compliance” with its sediment and erosion control plan, without noticing that the plan itself was inaccurate. Jamie Kritzer, public information officer, said mining inspectors focused on whether the quarry was “meeting the conditions of its state mining permit,” and not necessarily the larger issue of storm water runoff.
Wiggs said the sediment and erosion control plan needs to be updated.
“Mines move land. Things shift,” Wiggs said.
Indeed, when the quarry sliced open a new part of the mountainside as part of a major pit expansion in 2008, it apparently created new routes for runoff.
Further exacerbating the issue, a massive rockslide in 2009 reduced a section of the quarry wall to rubble — a loose pile of dirt and rock that is hundreds of feet wide and tall. Rain running off the slide section is contributing to sediment issues, Wiggs said.
Harrison did not waste any time getting to work. Even before the official violation notice arrived in the mail, a team of dozers and dump trucks could be seen at the quarry site shoring up erosion measures day in and day out.
When it comes to landfills, rain isn’t just inconvenient — it’s dangerous.
In 2009, the White Oak landfill in Haywood County had to contend with more than 35 million gallons of rainwater seeping into disposed waste.
While 80 percent of that rainwater is absorbed by the trash, the remaining 20 percent transforms into a contaminated liquid called leachate, which poses significant environmental and health risks.
The region saw about 62 inches of rain last year, falling just three inches short of the 1973 record. And if the rain wasn’t bad enough, the county got 22 inches of snow in December.
“It’s just a constant battle out there,” said Stephen King, waste director for Haywood County.
The White Oak landfill collects its leachate into a pool then hauls it to a wastewater treatment plant, an endeavor that alone cost $56,000 during the previous year when the region was in an extreme drought.
According to King, each inch of rain produces about 27,000 gallons of water — per acre. The landfill presently takes up 21 acres and is about to heap on 8.8 acres more.
“We had to double the capacity of the leachate pond just to accommodate the new cell,” said King.
The county faces several alternatives that might help lower costs in the long run. They include housing an internal wastewater treatment or running a sewer line directly to the wastewater plant that already exists.
Denese Ballew, landfill manager for Haywood, said both options would be costly, but the county is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of the latter, less expensive option.
“You have to have the cost to justify doing something like that,” said Ballew, pointing out that not every year will be as wet as 2009.
Federal law mandates that landfills properly treat leachate, and state laws are even more stringent, according to Ballew.
Modern landfill designs include liners and leachate collection systems, but almost all landfills that opened in North Carolina prior to 1993 have neither. Groundwater contamination continues to emanate from these unlined facilities. Another volatile byproduct from landfills is the build-up of methane gas from decomposing trash.
Haywood County hopes to alleviate both problems by installing a methane collection system at the old, unlined Francis Farm landfill. Extracting methane might also help keep contaminated water in check.
“If we have a positive suction on the landfill, we can prevent the water from migrating away,” said King.
The public is two-and-a-half years late learning that a popular area for swimming, rafting and fishing in Jackson County isn’t safe for extended human contact with the water due to high levels of fecal coliform.
Unsafe levels of fecal coliform in the Tuckasegee River and two tributaries around Dillsboro have Jackson County public health officials puzzled over how seriously to take the issue and what to do next.
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
It’s been almost a year since Bonita Fox and her family have taken a sip of water from their well.
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
Officials at Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority are waiting for the go-ahead from the state to increase sewer treatment plant capacity, which could end the current moratorium on sewer hook-ups.