Fort Mill Times

They’re asking how long it’ll take to clean a Lake Wylie spill. They’ll have to wait.

A week after the largest sediment spill in recent memory, residents turned out at the Lake Wylie Marine Commission meeting looking for answers.
A week after the largest sediment spill in recent memory, residents turned out at the Lake Wylie Marine Commission meeting looking for answers. Contributed by Don Clarke

A week after the largest sediment spill in recent memory, residents still are left wondering when something might be done to fix it. They may be waiting a while.

Residents turned out at the Aug. 28 Lake Wylie Marine Commission meeting looking for answers. Sediment retention measures failed at a residential construction site in The Palisades back on Aug. 20, spilling mud into the Torrence Creek cove just across from Tega Cay and York County. Now neighbors want to know what happens next.

“It’s a really messed up situation,” said David Smith, whose property was impacted by the overflow.

Smith said he and builder Mattamy Homes are involved in a legal issue dating to last fall, about a pipe going through his property. He said the company asked for access to the area through his property after the sediment issue, which he allowed thinking cleanup was critical for the lake. Now he is concerned the company doesn’t “seem to have a definite plan for how they’re going to do that.”

In a statement, Mattamy said only that the company continues to investigate what happened and is working “in full cooperation with the proper authorities and with our sub-contractors to address and remediate the issue.”

Marine Commission members and other water experts Monday said the cove will need to be dredged. It’s an expensive process anytime soil is removed from the lake bed and taken elsewhere. It’s relatively uncommon. And in cases where it does happen, it takes time.

Duke Energy has to approve dredging permits. Ronnie Lawson with the company’s lake services division said typical requests come from residents. If Mattamy is forced to dredge it would be a county or state requirement, not a Duke one. Because the spill originated in North Carolina but dumped sediment into South Carolina, it could be complicated.

“You’d probably be dealing with both states because of where you’re located,” Lawson said. “The application is just a process.”

Even the simplest dredging requests would, if approved, take six months or more before Duke issues the permit. A year or more would be possible.

The runoff problem

More soil in the water means shallower coves. Along with any contaminants it may carry, changes to the lake bed impact plant and animal life there. Shallow water means less access for boats and swimmers, which can mean decreased property value. But it can be a problem for non-residents, too.

Belmont, N.C., resident Mike Drum has been on the water 45 years, and in the past decade or so he noticed changes to the cove off his Lake Wylie Road home.

“Probably the last 10 or 15 years, he cove has been filling in,” he said.

Less than a year ago Drum put in a new pier. It’s almost been hit, twice. Which is why he addressed the commission Monday concerning what he estimates is a 200-yard sandbar.

“There’s a sandbar on the point,” Drum said. “The sandbar is getting closer and closer and closer and the boats are getting faster and faster and faster.”

Residents along Crowders Creek and at other spots on Lake Wylie could relate. The lake has several sandbars of varying size. In several places, they’ve grown in recent years. Some have full-sized trees growing out of them.

Unlike naturally shallow coves, growing amounts of soil from runoff can cause confusion. Which is why Drum asked the commission for some type of navigational marker near his home, where boats can get stuck easily. Even a Gaston County, N.C., lake enforcement officer said at the site, “if you don’t know where you’re going now, you will get stuck.”

“The river channel doesn’t follow the center of the river,” said Commissioner Brad Thomas, who represents Gaston County. “It flows off to the side. The middle isn’t the deepest part.”

Commissioner Neil Brennan said he isn’t sure the site warrants a no wake buoy, but “certainly” thinks it warrants a danger or navigational one. Just as he thinks state and local legislators need some kind of danger sign when it comes to sedimentation. Which he hopes the recent spill, is.

“They don’t seem to think sedimentation is a big deal, and it is,” Brennan said. “Maybe this will get their attention.”

Will change come?

Jim Allison has been on the water more than 60 years, and lives near the spill site. He’s seen plenty of development, but nothing like the two rarities he witnessed in one day.

“On the day of the eclipse, I saw the biggest mess I’ve ever seen on this lake,” Allison said.

The size of the spill got his attention, as did his impression that little work followed soon after.

“You could walk across the debris almost across the lake,” Allison said after three-and-a-half acres of water burst retention structures. “Nothing’s been done to clean the lake.”

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins spent every day in the week following the spill communicating with code enforcement officials. Because the building site is in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County is able to fine Mattamy $5,000 per day until the company is in compliance. Which is the highest amount allowed by any of the counties surrounding Wylie. Perkins said better standards, like a larger retention basin, and more punitive enforcement rules would be a big step toward avoiding such spills.

“Every county needs it,” Perkins said. “Certainly Mecklenburg County.”

York County is one he intends to try and work with on its sediment rules. Runoff into Lake Wylie has been an issue for public officials. York County Councilwoman Allison Love and state Rep. Bruce Bryant both mentioned the water quality issue in their campaigning the past two years. Perkins will have the best example to date to show officials what can happen, having witnessed “more sediment than I’ve ever seen leave a site,” with the Mattamy spill.

“The planning was there,” Perkins said. “The execution of it, they didn’t build the dike. This is the worst single incident I’ve ever seen.”

Don Clarke said he hopes that assessment doesn’t change. He was one of the first on the water to photograph the spill, but also is concerned with Duke Energy’s stated intent to sell 348 acres on the Concord Road peninsula, near Catawba Nuclear Station. Steep, undisturbed land there likely would mean a buyer has to clear cut and re-level the land if high density housing or other uses come.

“The land gets higher in the middle,” said Clarke, a resident there and member of the Catawba Nuclear Neighbors group formed in response to the potential sale. “Needless to say, it has the potential to seek the water in any number of ways. Water always flows downhill. It can impact the lake in any direction."

Clarke said he believes penalties have to be much higher if builders of often multi-million dollar properties are to be bothered with containing soil on-site. Mainly, he just doesn’t want anything like the Mattamy spill to happen near him.

"This is a huge exposure,” Clarke said. "There's a huge potential impact."

Perkins said volunteers with his group regularly get calls about varying levels of sediment loss. He said Mattamy and builder DR Horton are “a consistent problem on Lake Wylie.” He calls Mattamy in particular a “repeat offender, not just here but elsewhere.”

But for now, the driving issue is seeing the cove cleaned to whatever level it can be. For however long it may take.

“We absolutely need to see that sediment recovered,” Perkins said.