Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is called the birthplace of rivers because the area marks the headwaters of no fewer than eight major rivers. Outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe flock to Pocahontas County to take advantage of its remarkable natural landscape. The Elk River, named for the large population of elk that once roamed the area, is the crown jewel of the state’s many trout streams. Their habitat decimated by development, the region’s elk herds quickly declined—a hunter killed the last elk in 1920. Suddenly it looks as if the Elk River itself might be heading for a similar fate.
The confluence of Big Spring Creek and Old Field Creek near Slatyfork, West Virginia, forms the Elk River, which is fed along its way by numerous underground springs, some of which emanate from caves. The first four and a half miles of the Elk River, which is a catch-and-release only fishery, is unique, home to a naturally reproducing population of wild rainbows, brookies, and brown trout. After the first 10 miles the river begins to warm a bit and eventually turns into a very good smallmouth bass river which continues on for another 100 miles. This is a good place to catch largemouth, bluegill, walleye, and the occasional musky before it empties into the Kanawha River near Charleston, the state capitol.
Fly anglers and others who trek to Pocahontas County in search of solitude are not alone, however: They share the great outdoors with patrons of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, one of the most popular ski resorts in the Mid-Atlantic and Pocahontas County’s largest employer. Of course, popularity comes at a price: West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection reports indicate that the Snowshoe water and sewage treatment plant has racked up a myriad of regulatory violations that run the gamut from overflowing manhole covers to a routine failure to report spills.
According to the WVDEP, the Snowshoe treatment plant was cited for violations more than 30 times between 2004 and 2005 alone; 25 of these citations were for excessive ammonia nitrogen levels, which is especially hard on trout. One report cites a large sludge pile 80 feet long by 6 feet wide by 8 feet deep—as well as sludge worms and a plume of solids—in Big Spring, which feeds directly into the Elk River. After years of noncompliance, WVDEP finally slapped Snowshoe with a $3.12 million fine to show that the state means business.
The elected three-member Pocahontas County Commission—and their appointed three-member Public Service District—have stepped in to the Snowshoe sewage imbroglio with a plan: They have decided to pipe raw sewage five miles underground through areas riddled with sink holes and caves, eventually treating it on a site known as the Sharp Family Farm. The Sharp Family, as one might imagine, is less enthusiastic about the plan than the county commissioners are, and has launched a grass-roots campaign to save their family farm (www.savethesharpfarm.com). County commissioners James Carpenter and Rita Griffith have moved to confiscate the land through the use of eminent domain.
As county officials propose it, sewage treated at the Sharp Farm site will then be released directly into the Elk River. The plan also calls for the eventual diversion of up to 1.5 million gallons of water a day from the Shavers Fork River into the Elk River to help treat the effluent. Perhaps most alarming, when presented with this proposal, the WVDEP issued a finding of no significant impact despite the fact that no environmental impact study has been done. Officials believe that the proposed plant will cost at least $20 million, paid for by taxpayers—though court records indicate that more than 90 percent of initial system users would be located on resort property. It is worth noting that Snowshoe is owned by Intrawest, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada.
And what of Snowshoe’s $3.12 million fine for regulatory violations? Ever vigilant, the WVDEP determined to waive 95 percent of the resort’s fine when it donates its current problem-riddled treatment plant to the “regional” system. In that case, Snowshoe Mountain Resort will pay about $125,000 in fines for years of alleged environmental abuses and simultaneously shift all responsibility for upgrading or replacing its long-overtaxed plant onto the backs of West Virginia taxpayers.
This brings us back to the fragile Elk. Charlie Heartwell, former hatchery supervisor for West Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources with a doctoral degree in fish health, believes that a large raw sewage leak into the Elk could reduce the river to “a watery desert” in a matter of days. Indeed, if the worst fears of the treatment facility’s detractors are realized, the potential damage to the river, its wild trout population, and surrounding underground caves is incalculable.
In light of the danger to the environment, a group of caving enthusiasts known as 8 Rivers Safe Development (www.8riverssafedevelopment.com) has filed suit against the WVDEP. George Philips, president of 8 Rivers, minces no words in his assessment:
“Environmental laws are in place for a reason: to protect our precious natural resources and ensure they are managed properly so that future generations can enjoy them as we do today. Anyone who tries to circumvent these laws by conducting incomplete or ‘check the box’ analysis is recklessly and irresponsibly gambling with the environmental and financial future of our children and grandchildren. We didn’t inherit a polluted Elk River; let’s not leave one as our legacy.”
Philips is right. If you think this sewer plan doesn’t pass the smell test perhaps you should contact West Virginia’s Governor Joe Manchin at 888-438-2731 or e-mail him at Governor@WVGov.org and make your feelings known.
The cavers have shown true environmental leadership and have acted to protect what they cherish; now it is time for anglers to do the same. Otherwise, the Elk River’s wild trout may well follow the river’s namesake right into the history books.