Winter kerosene spill leaking into Tiger Creek

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   A winter kerosene spill in the Tiger Creek section of Roan Mountain is only now making itself known, while the extent of contamination has yet to be determined, according to local and state officials.
   Terry Proffitt, fire chief of Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, was called to the Tiger Creek area last Wednesday evening after neighbors complained of smelling kerosene and then noticed a sheen on the water in some nearby fish ponds.
   Proffitt estimated that nearly 500 gallons of kerosene being used by a Tiger Creek resident for home heating fuel had leaked out onto the ground. "The only thing we could figure was where the ground got so saturated, it started leaking out in the creek bed," he said. The affected residence is located about five miles north in Tiger Creek.
   Proffitt said he and members of the fire department placed absorbent pads in the ponds, located about 100 yards away. "We were trying to soak up what we could of it off the sides of the creek and in the people's ponds."
   Proffitt contacted Renee Bowers, interim director of Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Agency, who responded to the scene. Bowers said Proffitt showed her one of the absorbent pads and it was pink with kerosene. She notified Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Water Pollution Control.
   "My concern was the fact that there are drinking water wells within rock-throwing distance. Who's to say that it did not seep into their drinking water?" she said.
   While there are differing stories, no one is exactly sure how the leak occurred. Bowers said she was told that the resident has a home heating system which uses kerosene, and that during the winter he noticed that his kerosene was slowly disappearing. "He thought somebody was stealing it, and he ended up having the tank refilled," she said.
   When Bowers and Planning Administrator Chris Schuettler arrived at the scene Wednesday evening, the odor of kerosene was so strong that "when you stepped out of the vehicle you could smell it. It was potent," she said.
   It has not been determined how far the contamination has traveled; however, Bowers received one call from a concerned citizen who reported evidence of the kerosene near the Simerly Creek/Tolley Town split. "That's a pretty good distance," she said.
   Robert Tipton, who investigated the incident for the Division of Water Pollution Control, said the spill apparently occurred when a line from the home heating tank broke. The kerosene then went into the ground and is now leaching out of the ground and into Tiger Creek.
   Tipton said though the leak occurred several months ago, "they probably knew about it within a day or so of it happening. "Its still leaching out because it's in the soils," he said, and the extent of contamination won't be known until the soil is removed.
   What is now being observed apparently is residual contamination. "I'd say the biggest part of it came out the first week or so," Tipton said. "The worst of it is probably gone. You can look and see how it's traveling. It's probably coming out in a straight line and possibly following a spring. It's not like it's hitting groundwater and then popping up somewhere else. You can see a sheen in the eddies and can tell where it's coming out of the bank."
   Tipton said no fish kills had been reported.
   According to Andrew Tolley of the division, the property owner probably will be issued a notice of violation and TDEC will require the contaminated soil be removed and disposed of in an approved waste disposal facility.
   If the resident is financially unable to pay for cleanup, the burden could fall to the county. But according to the Water Quality Control Act, "inability to pay is not an acceptable excuse," Tolley said.
   In similar contamination cases, the property owner is issued a notice of violation and given 15 to 30 days to respond with a plan of action for cleanup. The matter is then referred to TDEC's enforcement division in Nashville for follow-up.