First Posted: 7/3/2014

ROCKINGHAM — County health officials have shut down a Richmond County pond after a resident reported a sewage dump, but state regulators dismissed the claim and said Thursday that “the case is closed.”

The Richmond County Health Department is still investigating the possible sewage spill at a pond located between Windsor Drive and Fairfield Drive outside Rockingham near the Cordova community. Health Director Dr. Tommy Jarrell told nearby residents in a letter last month that the pond is “possibly contaminated.”

Jarrell wrote the letter after property owner Chris Howard asked the health department to investigate whether sewage from septic tanks had been illegally dumped into the pond by a local company.

“I didn’t see the spill,” Howard said. “But you have a pond, and you have a sewage truck pumping sewage and within an hour, the pond was filled with sewage. There could be anything in there — razor blades, hypodermic needles.”

Howard has a canoe and a kayak on the bank of the pond that touches his property and says he, like the other residents surrounding the water, enjoyed boating and fishing here before the sludge appeared on the water’s surface?

“I have pictures,” Howard said. “This stuff gets blown across the water and pools up over here on my side when the breeze blows. The water that falls through the dam here runs under the road (Old Cheraw Highway) and into a pond on privately owned land that feeds into Hitchcock Creek. I’m just concerned about the far-reaching effects of this mess.”

County officials declared the pond an “imminent health hazard” under N.C. General Statute 130A-20(a) and advised residents not to use the pond while the health department investigates.

“The department is recommending that you do not allow anyone to swim, fish or use the pond for any other recreational purpose until further notice,” Jarrell wrote in the letter dated June 6.

Warning signs from the health department were posted to trees along the pond’s bank, and Richmond County sheriff’s Detective Kevin Tuttle was assigned to the investigation. Tuttle and other detectives were unavailable for comment Thursday.

Further notice arrived 10 days later in a second letter from the health department informing residents that it collected water samples from the pond and sent them to the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health for testing.

Tests revealed that fecal coliform levels in the pond were “unacceptable,” according to the letter, and the health department emphasized that people should not use the pond due to the confirmed contamination.

Sarah Young, public information officer for the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, confirmed that the Richmond County Health Department contacted the agency for assistance in the investigation.

“They went and looked at records from the company in question,” she said of state investigators. “All were fine. There were no tracks or evidence of a sewage dump at the pond. The case is closed on our end.”

No explanation was available for the discrepancy between the local and state reports, but the county’s investigation is ongoing.

“People aren’t interested in the cleanup,” Howard said. “There are fish in this pond. We’ve had boys out here fishing and caught 30-pound catfish. I was here when DENR came and they saw a dead duck that I believe was killed by the contamination. They have a picture of it. I don’t understand how they couldn’t see what I saw and what we all see even now. There’s something in that water, and if I stirred up the bank right now, you’d have to leave.”

The county asked for the public’s help in the follow-up letter to residents whose land borders the pond.

“We encourage anyone (who) has any information that may help pinpoint the source of the contamination to call the Richmond County Health Department at 910-997-8320 or Detective Kevin Tuttle with Richmond County Sheriff’s Department at 895-3232,” the second letter states.

Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-817-2673.