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

Board OKs Snowshoe sewer project

Thursday June 7, 2007
The Charleston Gazette

Despite comments against, plant to be built at Elk headwaters

By Rick Steelhammer
Staff writer

Plans to relocate the sewage plant serving Pocahontas County's largest development onto the grounds of one of its smallest and oldest tourist stops came a step closer to becoming a reality on Wednesday.

Meeting in Institute, the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council voted unanimously to approve granting a $2.5 million advance on a previously approved loan to the Pocahontas Public Service District to pay for additional engineering and design costs for a planned $17 million sewage plant at Slatyfork.

Initially, the plant would serve about 1,800 houses and condos at Snowshoe Mountain Resort and about 60 residences between Snowshoe and Slatyfork, said PSD attorney Tom Michael.

The plant would release up to 1.5 million gallons of treated effluent daily into Big Spring Fork, a small Elk River headwaters stream that normally leaves a dry channel and flows underground in the vicinity of the planned development during the summer and fall.

The sewer plant site is located on land owned by the Sharp family, residents of the Slatyfork area for nine generations, whose descendants operate Sharp's Country Store, a landmark on U.S. 219 since the highway opened in the 1920s. Along with an adjacent bed and breakfast, the store — crammed with antiques, artifacts, wildlife trophies, groceries and locally produced apples and baked goods — lies a few hundred yards upstream of the planned sewage plant.

In addition to store operator Tom Shipley and other Sharp family heirs, opponents of the proposed sewer plant include Trout Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League, the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia Outdoor Sportsmen's Association and the National Speleological Society.

The conservation groups worry about the effects effluent discharges would have on the upper Elk River, a premiere trout stream with naturally reproducing populations of brook and rainbow trout. They also have voiced concerns about locating the plant on limestone karst terrain, where sinkholes and underground caverns and channels could maximize environmental problems caused by leaks or spills from the plant or its pipelines could contaminate groundwater.

The planned $17 million plant is also opposed by the Snowshoe Property Owners Council. The Snowshoe Mountain residents' group maintains its members were never consulted by Snowshoe's management in planning the development, which is expected to involve a five-fold increase in their sewer bills.

At Wednesday's hearing, SPOC director Skip Mills asked the Infrastructure Council to postpone action on releasing the $2.5 million advance until more questions about the proposed plant are answered.

Shipley complained that the public was never adequately involved in the plant's planning.

"Notices were never given that a regional sewage plant was going to be discussed at the meeting where it first came to light," he said. "That meeting was supposed to have been about a development for Hawthorne Valley ... My mother found out about plans to take Sharp's Farm for the plant by reading it in the paper."

Rather than build a huge new sewer plant with a five-mile pipeline, Shipley said a safer, less-expensive solution would be "to retrofit the existing plants at Snowshoe with immersed membrane technology," a process that uses microfilters to extract pure water from the aeration basins of wastewater plants. Eight Rivers Safe Development, a cavers' group interested in protecting the region's speleological resources, recently proposed such a solution.

Shipley said the area's karst geology was not taken into account in selecting his family's farm. "The newest sinkhole on our property is 30 feet wide and 40 feet deep," he said. "All it takes is one mistake and the aquifer's ruined."

"We want to see that the headwaters of the Elk River are kept intact," said Regina Hendrix of the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "By locating a sewer plant on a shallow karst floodplain, there's a high likelihood of collapse."

No one at Wednesday's hearing spoke in favor of the project.

After statements by Hendrix, Shipley and Mills, Infrastructure Council chairman Ken Lowe told members that the Slatyfork project "is a very sensitive issue that's of great interest. It's something we need to give a lot of thought to because there's a lot at stake here."

Immediately after Lowe's remarks, the board voted to approve the $2.5 million advance on a unanimous voice vote without discussion.

"It's all about bailing Snowshoe out of its sewer problems," Shipley said after the vote. Shipley said there is growing concern in his county about using eminent domain to acquire the Sharp family property for a development that would mainly benefit another, larger private enterprise.

"This is not just about one pesky family being difficult and trying to keep its property," he said "It's become a county issue, and I think we have about 95 percent of the county's support. ... I'll keep fighting this thing until the day I die."

To contact staff writer Rick Steelhammer, call 348-5169.