UPDATE: Johnson City receives notice of violation from TDEC following Watauga River fish kill investigation


This photo taken Nov. 9 shows an outfall into Brush Creek near Johnson City’s Dalewood Drive water treatment plant.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- A City of Johnson City water treatment plant storm drain was the source of a Nov. 5 chlorine discharge into Brush Creek that killed fish and other aquatic life for a 2.98-mile stretch of the creek and parts of the Watauga River, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) investigation has found. The spill killed more than 2,200 fish valued at more than $9,000, a Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) biologist said Friday.

“Please be advised that the chlorine containing discharge from the storm drain on your site is a violation of the Tennessee Water Control Act of 1977,” a TDEC notice of violation dated Nov. 26 and sent to the city’s water and sewer services director, Tom Witherspoon, states. That notice gave the city 15 days to provide TDEC a written plan “for corrective actions taken to identify and eliminate this discharge from your storm drain into Brush Creek,” the notice states.

“TDEC is working with the city on an interim and long-term restoration plan on Brush Creek and the Watauga River,” TDEC spokesperson Kim Schofinski said in an email today. TDEC has completed an investigation that commenced Nov. 5. Schofinski said city officials have identified the discharge’s cause and taken immediate steps to correct it. They have not yet submitted the written corrective action plan, she said.

PREVIOUS STORY: TWRA, TDEC investigating fish kill on Watauga River

A section of Brush Creek Nov. 9 just upstream of the outfall where the chlorine entered…
And another section just downstream of the outfall showing the bleaching.

TDEC’s Tina Robinson led an investigation that included the TWRA, the city of Johnson City and local emergency management agencies. That came after Jeff Corder, superintendent of the treatment plant, notified TDEC of foam on Brush Creek Nov. 5.

TDEC’s violation notice says the city may be subject to civil penalties for each day the violation occurs or continues and that the case has been forwarded to TDEC’s compliance and enforcement section.

A strong chlorine smell and dead fish were reported to TWRA Nov. 5 as far downstream as Saylor Island on the Watauga River by a landowner, nearly a mile from the mouth of Brush Creek.

Chlorine testing showed conducted at 11:35 a.m. Nov. 6 at the outfall into the creek “revealed a total chlorine residual of 7.1 millligrams per liter, and an investigation into sources of the chlorine discharge including the Water Plant ensued,” the violation notice states.

TWRA biologist tallied the toll

Rob Lindbom, TWRA’s Region IV aquatic habitat protection biologist, spent nearly eight hours Nov. 6 walking Brush Creek and the Watauga River. He found 14 species of fish, including rainbow and brown trout. Using a standard method to extrapolate the number of fish killed, Lindbom arrived at a total of 2,221. “That’s a very conservative number,” he said.

He said he also saw dead crayfish and dead salamanders as he walked a third of the two miles of Brush Creek that was affected, from an outfall near the water treatment plant on Dalewood Drive to the creek’s confluence with the river. He also walked half the nearly mile-long stretch of river, to the Herb Hodge Road bridge, that was affected.

Brush Creek more than a mile downstream of the where the chlorine entered (Nov. 9).

“It was terrible the fish that we lost,” Lindbom said.

TDEC enforces the state’s water quality control act, but TWRA typically sends a fish value plus staff cost to TDEC. “That (TDEC) corrective action will usually include them paying the charges,” Lindbom said. He said Johnson City has a “standup program” and he fully anticipates they’ll address

ETSU professor: The effects of chlorine on waterways

Phillip Scheuerman is a professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Environmental Health and directs the school’s environmental health and sciences laboratory.

ETSU Professor of Environmental
Health Phillip Scheuerman.

“There was a lot of chlorine that went into the creek, which would do a lot of harm to all the aquatic insects, algae, fungi living on the bottom of the stream,” Scheuerman said. Chlorine is used to kill off unwanted organisms, so too much concentration at once can kill off most everything.

“Any fish swimming through that level of chlorine would probably have gills burned and die very quickly,” Scheuerman said. Additionally, the lack of food availability for a time period following the spill could keep fish populations out of the area where it occurred.

In one respect, Scheuerman said chlorine doesn’t create immediate havoc for long. It’s diluted by the water and the organisms it kills “use” the chlorine. “That’s why we see the bleaching … So the chlorine will hit and oxidize the organic matter and then it’s gone.”

Several factors affect how long it takes for the stream to recover, Scheuerman said. Those include how warm it gets, how much sunlight hits the water and runoff amounts. As an urban stream, Brush Creek is already compromised including by fecal coliform, which he said can make recovery slower.

“Short term it affects a recreational source and it’s not going to be very aesthetically pleasing, and it’s going to exacerbate other problems we might have in the creek.”

Bacteria will have to grow, which would then allow insects to drift back downstream and colonize and algae and fungi to grow. Eventually, that will provide fish a food source.

“This is the kind of thing that the stream can recover from, but during that period where it’s recovering we’re gonna see conditions that we wouldn’t ordinarily want to see,” Scheuerman said. “It’s a complex interaction. That’s why it gets really difficult to predict how long the impact will be visible and affecting the water quality and whatever recreational uses people might want to be using it for.”

In a news release Friday, the city referenced a “foaming incident” on Nov. 5 and said the department had “investigated processes at the Watauga Water Treatment Plant.

“In the past month, it has been determined that some discharged water that was believed to be routed to a sanitary sewer line actually has been released to the storm drain system,” the city’s release said. “While the discharge has been low volume, sampling indicated higher than normal chlorine levels in the creek.”

Water and Sewer Services Director Tom Witherspoon was quoted in the release saying, “The City has taken quick action to rectify this situation by plugging and securing containment drains and disconnecting certain piping, Our staff has worked closely with TDEC officials since we first reported the foaming incident. We continue to coordinate with them on interim and long-term steps for remediation.”

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