- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky officials are upset that it took two months for anyone in Virginia to tell them about the millions of gallons of sewage pouring into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River and across the state line.

A marina operator at Fishtrap Lake is frustrated, too. He has seen his business nosedive just as the prime season gets underway.

The leak started in early March in Buchanan County, Virginia. Officials there blame it on flooding that shifted pieces of manholes, causing rocks and sediment to clog a stretch of sewage line. The sewage seeped through underwater manholes into the river that flows into Kentucky.

Repair crews have made progress, allowing some sewage to start reaching a wastewater treatment plant, said Allen Newman, a regional director for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. But sewage is still pouring into the river, he said.

The leak had been gushing for more than two months before Kentucky officials were notified by Virginia on May 13, Dick Brown, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said Thursday.

“Certainly we would like to have known as soon as it took place in order to begin monitoring and mitigating on our side of the border,” he said.

Kentucky officials have been monitoring the waterway for any signs of increased bacteria or E. coli, Brown said.

“From what we’re seeing, we believe the levels are not elevated to the point in Kentucky, anyway, to cause concern,” he said.

In Virginia, testing has shown slightly elevated levels of bacteria, and an advisory was issued warning people that swimming in the river could result in a higher risk of getting sick, Newman said.

As for why Virginia took so long to alert Kentucky, Newman said the flooding and uncertainty about where the leaks were complicated matters.

The Levisa Fork feeds into Fishtrap Lake, a popular fishing and boating haven in Pike County in southeastern Kentucky.

So far, there have been no signs of fish kills or algae blooms that can result from such contamination, said Rodney Holbrook, resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers at Fishtrap Lake. Holbrook said the river flow likely diluted the contamination.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed and we’re monitoring,” Holbrook said.

As word spread about the sewage spill, it put a damper on Johnny Thacker’s marina business along Fishtrap Lake.

Nearly half of the 46 pontoon slips at his Appalachian Marina are empty, he said. In past years, all his slips were occupied and he had a waiting list.

The region’s struggling coal economy accounts for part of the downturn, but the sewage spill added to his problems, he said.

His Memorial Day weekend business was off about 40 percent, Thacker said. Last Saturday morning, he saw two boats on a portion of the lake that normally would have been teeming with vessels as people fished and water-skied.

“It’s killed my business,” he said. “Everybody talks about it. They won’t swim in it. They aren’t going to swim in sewage.”

Hank Graddy, water chairman of the Kentucky chapter of the Sierra Club, said Virginia’s slow response in notifying Kentucky was “completely unacceptable,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. He said it demonstrates the need for a notification system to make sure downstream points are alerted to spills that foul waterways.

Graddy also criticized Virginia officials for the time it has taken to make the repairs, which are still ongoing nearly three months since the leak began.

Newman said crews have had to bring in special equipment for the painstaking job of unclogging the 20-inch diameter sewage line packed with rocks and debris.

There were similar blockages and leaks in the past due to flooding, he said, but this one “has lasted longer and has been more problematic.”

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