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Watauga River Petrochemical Seep Investigation Near Foscoe Warrants Public Health Advisory

Taylor Marsh, Watauaga County Emergency Response; Cart Williamson of the Environmental Protection Agency; Andy Hill, Watauga Riverkeeper and MountainTrue High Country Regional Director; and Jay Kerley, Watauga County Emergency Response on the scene at the chemical seep near Foscoe, North Carolina. Photo credit: MountainTrue.

A multi-agency investigation is underway to identify the source and nature of a petrochemical seep into the Watauga River near Foscoe, North Carolina. The seep is persistent, is causing a sheen on the water’s surface, and has prompted Watauga County officials to issue a health advisory urging people to stay out of the water and avoid recreational activities in the vicinity.  

The seep was first identified by local angler Mikey Ward and reported to Andy Hill, the Watauga Riverkeeper, who promptly came to investigate and take water samples. After determining that the seep was petrochemical in nature, Hill reported the seep to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the Watauga County Emergency Response Team.  

“I can’t thank Mikey Bard enough for reporting this seep. She is a great example to our community: if you see something suspicious, report it,” said Andy Hill, Watauga Riverkeeper and MountainTrue High Country Regional Director. “Our local Emergency Management Team, DEQ and the EPA have responded quickly, and we hope to get to the bottom of this soon so that we can stop the seep and clean up the pollution for good.”

Hill is now working side-by-side with Karen Hall from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Underground Storage Tanks Section and Taylor Marsh and Jay Kerley of the Watauga County Emergency Response Team to hunt down the source of the spill. They are using many methods, including metal detectors, probes and detective work, to locate underground tanks and determine if they are seeping into nearby streams. Our team is also on the lookout for other potential sources.

“We’re working to locate the source of the seep as quickly as possible,” explains Karen Hall, Environmental Senior technician of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Underground Storage Tanks Section. “We take the health of our rivers very seriously, and we’re always thankful to have the help and support of concerned citizens and local partners such as the Watauga Riverkeeper.”

The water samples that Hill and Hall collected are now being analyzed to identify the polluting chemicals and get a better sense of the risks to the public. Results are expected by Thursday, August 3.

This was the third instance of water pollution that has been reported to the Watauga Riverkeeper this summer. In late-June, Hill investigated a suspicious fishkill that was likely the result of elevated levels of pollutant containing Barium and Arsenic introduced into the river by stormwater runoff — the source of which remains a mystery. A second, smaller fishkill was found on July 12 and determined to be caused by lowered dissolved oxygen levels most likely the result of sediment runoff.

The Watauga Riverkeeper, a program of MountainTrue, has a water monitoring program, and volunteers take monthly water quality samples throughout the Watauga Watershed. The Riverkeeper also responds to calls from the public. To volunteer or report spills and incidents of suspected pollution, contact Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill at andy@mountaintrue.org or 828-406-2429.

*Release form MountainTrue

The sheen of petrochemicals on the water’s surface on the Upper Watauga near Foscoe, North Carolina.
Catch boom installed to contain petrochemical seep on the Upper Watauga. Photo credit: MountainTrue