The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has reissued a recreational water contact advisory for the lower portion of the New River, including a section within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, due to operational failures at the Huntsville, Tn., wastewater treatment plant. TDEC issued a similar advisory in March 2012 and rescinded when the treatment plant’s performance returned to compliance.
The public is cautioned to avoid recreational uses of this portion of the New River, which is downstream from river mile 14.8. The advisory pertains to all water contact activities such as kayaking, swimming and fishing.
The Huntsville plant’s membrane filter process is experiencing mechanical problems, resulting in reduced levels of wastewater treatment. Because of the proximity of the discharge to the Big South Fork National Recreation Area, the department made the decision to issue the advisory. Huntsville, its consultants and the filter supplier are working together to restore the ability of the facility to adequately treat wastewater and meet water quality standards.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is providing oversight and technical support to the impacted system and will continue monitoring water quality closely. When the risk to public health has been eliminated, the advisory will be lifted.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, illnesses can be caused by germs that are spread by swallowing or having other contact with contaminated water. These illnesses can cause several types of symptoms, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections, but the most commonly reported is diarrhea. Even healthy swimmers can get sick, but the young, elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are especially at risk.
If water contact cannot be avoided, or if you are unsure of the cleanliness of the water you have contacted, the best thing to do is wash with clean water and soap. Ingestion of contaminated water and exposure to open cuts or scrapes would be the greatest cause for concern from a health standpoint.
Once the sources of bacteriological contamination are eliminated, there should be no long-term environmental impacts to the river.