Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.

The Slatyfork Sewage Saga

Wednesday March 1, 2006
Mountain State Sierran

By Tom Shipley

To solve Snowshoe's waste water problems, the County and State will step in and spend $17,000,000 for a new water treatment facility on the Upper Elk River floodplain. All on the taxpayers' dime!

Pocahontas County, West Virginia is a sanctuary for flora, fauna and those who escape to it. Thousands of years before Christ, Native Americans called this nourishing landscape home. The settlers who later entered the region from the 1700's on endured untold hardships and civil war. Fierce and determined families put down roots and some survive to this day, generations strong!

Why has this region engendered such devotion?

One drive down Scenic Highway 55/219 through Slatyfork and you will understand. The scenery is breathtaking. Thousands of acres of forest, centuries' old farmland with narrow valley meadows and steep mountains are nothing short of spectacular. Few areas in the United States remain as they were and are in Pocahontas County.

The Sharp family has watched over this land for centuries. Born and raised in West Virginia, I recently gave up my home and business to keep watch for my lifetime. I am the eighth generation to do so. William Sharp built the first house in Huntersville in the 1700's. His son, William II, settled East in a village named Edray. Then William III made his way some 15 miles further east and settled at the confluence of the Old Field Fork and the Big Spring of Elk rivers. Together with Laurel Run, they form the Upper Elk River.

William's log dwelling became the first house here in what is now known as Slatyfork. The Upper Elk River remains as it has for eons. A visit to this natural wonder brings tears to the eye just for its sheer beauty. The State of West Virginia enjoys the benefits of God's gift as the Upper Elk is one of the premier fly-fishing destinations of the world! Just a few hundred feet up the Big Spring of Elk, the Sharp family hosts one of the largest cold-water springs in West Virginia. This spring is complex in nature, with many underground conduits and dynamic flows. It is crucial to the Upper Elk fishery due to the karst terrain. Karst is the term geologists use to refer to the fissured limestone, underground water channels, sinkholes and caves in this region.

The native brook trout, rainbow and brown trout all depend on this spring for their reproduction. Why? Because the Big Spring of Elk River flows underground for much of the year. In low or no flow years, this spring provides theonly surface water for the Upper Elk, and therefore the only sanctuary for reproduction. The crayfish, Cambarus elkensis, one of only two species endemic to West Virginia, also depends upon this spring for its very existence. Whitney Stocker, discoverer of this unique creature, says the Elkensis could not survive without it.

Just above this spring, the river is forced to maneuver around one of the Sharp farm fields. The field was literally created by the Middle Mountain stream that flows fast and furious down steep cliffs as it makes its way onto the field. As it has done for ages, the flooding leaves deposits of earth and debris. This process created what is referred to as an alluvial fan, essentially our field. That is why the Big Spring of Elk River must make a sharp left hand turn to negotiate the half globe shaped obstacle of the fan. More than half of this low, flat field is in the 100-year flood plain. Sometimes the Big Spring flow has such velocity in an otherwise dry riverbed that it spills over onto the very highest part of the field and makes its way straight across toward the Upper Elk. The field, then, is prone to flooding from two entities; the Middle Mountain stream and the Big Spring of Elk. And remember, the field is essentially made entirely of flood deposits from the Middle Mountain stream.

The circumstance of this most amazing geography, environment and history is about to change. County officials are about to take this very field by Eminent Domain for the purpose of a sewage treatment plant. Four open vats of human waste will greet passersby and the stench will be carried by the constant prevailing winds to and through the adjacent Sharp family farm complex. The State of West Virginia has proposed to create an historic district for the Sharp farm. Right along Scenic Highway 55/219 is our red covered bridge, 121-year continuously running Sharp's Country Store, log house in which Robert E. Lee dined during his first campaign through this area as General, recently restored 1900's farmhouse (now a B & B) and numerous outbuildings predating the Civil War. Our livelihood will be taken away as they take this property. There will be no need for historic designation.

The pressures of progress are weighing heavily on those who govern Pocahontas County. Officials view our fields and mountains as untapped resources, unused by the current owners. They surely believe we are an odd bunch, leaving much of the land as nature homage to our forefathers. The Sharps were naturalists before there was a word for it. L.D. Sharp, my great-grandfather, promoted tourism before the word was coined.

Intrawest's Snowshoe Ski Resort on Cheat Mountain has been a major player in the community for some time. Their success has, it seems, overshadowed the need to look after the environment, ironically, the very thing they 'sell'. West Virginia gave Intrawest the right to own and operate its own utility, Snowshoe Water and Sewer, INC. In the last few years, they have been cited again and again for pollution violations by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Raw sewage spills, overflows and various other catastrophes number in the hundreds; many unreported.

Curiously, the WVDEP did not demand a moratorium on building while Snowshoe 'cleaned up its act'. Instead, hundreds and hundreds of new units come online every year without the proper infrastructure to accommodate them. Instead of simply requiring Intrawest, a billion dollar company, to finance the building of a facility to properly treat its waste, the Pocahontas County Commission approved a plan for a 'regional' sewer system. Now, the citizens of West Virginia will finance a $17 million project that will culminate in the building of a sewage treatment plant, 12 miles away from Snowshoe, with the resulting devastation of environment and eight generations of Sharp family history.

Out-of-state developers have descended upon Pocahontas County offering untold amounts of money to owners of generations old farmland. These historic properties were being parceled out into 3-acre plots. But the developers pushed hard for the 'regional' sewer so they can sub-divide into smaller and smaller lots. Certain developers were offered their own waste load allocation at the base of Cheat Mountain, but these offers were refused, as financing of the project would have been required of them.

The Pocahontas County Commission stepped in with visions of dollar bills in their eyes for the county coffers. Commission president, Joel Callison, remarked in a March 1, 2005 county commission meeting, "We are not doing this for those of you along Route 219 now, we are doing this for the developers". You see, for $17 million, the state is building a sewer plant to serve fewer than 100 new subscribers. To top that, we are paying Intrawest $431,000 for 'pond reclamation'. This sewer or aeration 'pond' will not be used by the new system. We are also paying Snowshoe 'developers' $866,500.00 for collection pipes, some already in the ground for years and years.

The most egregious insult of all, however, is the term 'regional'. The West Virginia Public Service Commission allowed the Pocahontas County Public Service District to usurp Snowshoe Water and Sewer to create this benefit for the region. However, here is where things went awry. The project was conceived in four 'blocks'. (Block A, B, C and D). Block A was to be financed and built first. It originally included Snowshoe (at the top of Cheat Mountain), Linwood (at the base of the mountain) and Slatyfork (12 miles from the top of Cheat). The question is, why would they take the line so many miles away to pick up less than 60 people along route 219? We are talking millions and millions of dollars. This original block A was to cost $8 million.

Two years later block A includes a 'new' entity; Silvercreek Village. The big question, again, is why? Silvercreek is on the other side of Cheat Mtn. and is in a completely different watershed. (Shavers Fork of the Cheat watershed vs. the Elk River of the Kanawha watershed). Four pumps with pipes to get the raw sewage down one side of the mountain, up the other and then over and down adds millions to the cost. Shavers Fork is in peril from low water flow. Environmentalists are concerned that the river system may not be able to sustain life in the near future. The water from Silvercreek should remain in that watershed.

Mysteriously, the government allowed Intrawest to dam the headwaters of the Shavers Fork River. The ski resort obtains most of its drinking water and snowmaking water from this artificial lake. Amazingly, as Snowshoe grows and grows, enormous amounts of water from that watershed will be siphoned up then melted and flushed over and down into the Elk River water shed. This is known as inter-basin transfer. It is never a good thing for the environment.

So, back to Block A. Now, it includes Silvercreek and the cost has soared to $17 million just for this block! The engineering firm and lawyer for the Pocahontas County Public Service District espoused the reason for the Sharp farm field as the location for the new 'regional' plant as the WVDEP designated site for 1.5 million gallons per day waste load allocation. The larger the capacity, the more building there will be. The PSD lawyer even stood in front of the PSD board and told them no matter where the plant is built, the DEP insists that the Sharp farm site is 'it'.

This turned out to be untrue. Stephanie Timmermeyer, Cabinet Secretary of WVDEP said that they never required the Sharp Farm site for the effluent discharge, nor would they ever. In fact, we have learned that up to 2.5 million gallons/day waste load allocation was available further down next to the Elk River. So the PSD board voted for the Sharp Farm site based on this and other erroneous information. Nor were any environmental studies done. WVDNR and US Fish & Wildlife sent letters indicating no rare or threatened species were in their files, yet they cautioned Thrasher Engineering that no known environmental studies had ever been performed. Thrasher Engineering submitted those letters to the WVDEP for approval of their discharge permit. George Dasher, WVDEP geologist, studied the karst for 3 months. He submitted a 'trip study' to the WVDEP engineering department warning them not to build this facility on this site. A few weeks later, a high-level WVDEP official required another DEP geologist to 'reply' to this study. Chad Board simply queried Thrasher Engineering on Dasher's concerns and they indicated they would 'look into them'. Based on this written response, Board submitted a letter, on behalf of the WVDEP, saying that since Thrasher would 'look into it' he surmised there would be no danger to the groundwater. Another 'permission' letter filed.

Every sewer ever constructed has overflow or spill problems. One event on this field will be an environmental catastrophe. The material will be swallowed by the karst and the Upper Elk River and its underground aquifer will be ruined for decades. No amount of money will be able to solve that problem. Envision this catastrophe; a sewage treatment plant on a field wrought with sinkholes and dynamic underground water channels, in the middle of a flood plain, with pipes through a most crucial spring with discharge into essentially a dry, karst riverbed. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Sago mine tragedy, it is hard to believe that government officials are willing to ignore this documented danger.

Dr. Todd Petty, Professor of Fisheries Science of West Virginia University, says this spring complex is the wheelhouse for the Upper Elk Fishery. Whitney Stocker says merely constructing the plant on the Sharp Farm site will potentially cause the extinction of the Cambarus Elkensis. The WVDEP required absolutely nothing of Thrasher Engineering for the protection of aquatic life in their design of the treatment plant. Nothing for temperature (native trout will be killed), sediment, metals, phosphorus....nothing.

The US Army Corp of Engineers will permit the trenching of the spring (which has its own riverbed and often flows with higher and greater velocity than the Big Spring of Elk, itself) saying, "We have no jurisdiction over springs". The ACOE, in their own charter, is not supposed to allow any disturbance that would affect reproduction in a water of the United States, but this is being ignored. The WVDEP engineer, in charge of approving the plans for the treatment plant, is about to issue a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact). With all of the knowledge of harm to environment, from the contamination of underground aquifers with any spill (Snowshoe had many) to the loss of breeding habitat from sediment to the outright annihilation of aquatic life from water temperature changes...a FINDING OF NO SIGNIFICANT IMPACT will be issued for the purpose of obtaining a permit to discharge effluent into the Big Spring of Elk River.

I have spent many months researching and alerting government officials of the perils of their decisions. The smell of money seems to have hypnotized them. The only official willing to take a public stand has been Governor Manchin. Just 1/ 4 mile downstream is a karst-free state owned parcel. The governor has offered it or any other state-owned land for the grand total of one dollar. Many environmental groups seek such a move to karst-free land, but, amazingly, the Pocahontas County Commission refuses to move the plant. Thrasher Engineering claims this move would cost almost $4 million and would take 5 years. The commission says they do not want to burden the future ratepayers.

You see, the monthly rate per household is already over $50.00. And the real shocker has not even been discussed. Any sensible person could surmise that moving a plant that has not even been built yet just a few hundred yards downstream would not cost $4 million dollars and take 5 years. Dissecting the budget for this project, one could easily find the extra money needed to move the plant to a safe location. The general manager of Intrawest, Bill Rock testifies that Snowshoe is not doing so well.(State law requires new sewer facilities to be built to accommodate 20 years of growth). His projection for building is around 500 units in the next 20 years. Even based on this 'reduced' forecast (see Intrawest's 2005 annual report and you will see that they plan to build over 500 units in 6-8 years along with 30,000 square feet of additional commercial space) the 1.5 million gallons/day waste load allocation for the Sharp Farm site will be exceeded. So this means there will be no Block B, C or D. There will be no regional system. For $17 million Pocahontas County will have a sewer system to primarily serve the Snowshoe Ski Resort on historic property, 12 miles away and in a location begging for an environmental disaster. When general manager Rock was asked to join with Governor Manchin in relocating the plant to a safe karst-free location, his reply to me was, "We can't afford the delay". Intrawest has financed a public campaign to place the sewer treatment plant on the Sharp Farm site.

It is time to act. The Sharps have been served a second round of Eminent Domain papers. Our 93 year-old tenant, Evva Shelton, who has lived next to the recently named Evva Shelton Spring for 66 years, was sent her own personal letter from Pocahontas County! Governor Manchin has offered state owned property that is safe. Senator Walt Helmick, chairman of the finance committee,told Evva's daughter, "The only solution is to move it". Please encourage him to find funds to do so at 304-357-7980. Governor Manchin can be reached at 888-438-2731. If they do not get a loud and clear message our pristine valley may be a thing of the past. See for updates.