Unusually heavy rains and high water levels resulted in the release of an unknown "sludge-like material" into the Ocoee River earlier in the week.
According to Public Affairs Officer Terry McDonald at the Cherokee National Forest office in Cleveland, heavy rains and high water prompted a release from TVA's Ocoee Dam #3, which sent debris and a heavy flow of "sludge-like material" into the Ocoee River from the "White Water Center on down." Mr. McDonald said that samples of the material were collected and sent out for analysis.
TDEC has taken over investigation of the event. We contacted them about the release and will let you know when we hear back.
The Ocoee watershed in the lower East Tennessee Copper Basin is impacted by pollution from area copper and sulfur mining operations going back to 1843.
Ocoee Reservoir #3 is on the EPA's list of impaired waters, and a recent TDEC statewide water quality status report identifies the primary pollutants as copper, iron, and zinc. The 2008 report also says that Ocoee #3 is "almost filled" with sediment and suspended solids.
The public health risks do not appear to be serious or immediate. An EPA human health risk assessment advised against consuming more than 31.5 grams (4.5 servings) of fish per month from Ocoee #3 because of mercury (presumably from other sources such as coal-fired power plant emissions).
But the report also says that "exposure to contaminants in sediment and surface water of the Ocoee River are not predicted to result in unacceptable levels of health risk to area residents, recreational visitors, or whitewater rafting guides."
There's no word yet, though, on what the sludge-like material from Ocoee #3 is or what pollutants it might contain.
UPDATE: TDEC initial report.
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