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The Watauga River near the Profile Trail access off N.C. 105 was thick with foam on Feb. 24. Photo submitted.

Originally published: 2013-03-04 16:36:09
Last modified: 2013-03-05 12:13:45

Source of Watauga River foam located

The likely source of the foam that filled the Watauga River near Banner Elk last month has been located, but there's disagreement about whether the bubbles pose an environmental hazard.

According to firefighter Daniel Dugger of the Linville Volunteer Fire Department, the foamy substance was flushed from a fire truck that responded to a house fire Feb. 24 in Seven Devils.

Dugger said the foam is biodegradable and not toxic to people or animals.

"It won't harm a thing," he said.

However, a material safety data sheet for the product urges users to "prevent discharge of foam/foam solution to waterways." It also states that the product may cause skin irritation due to removal of oils and is an eye irritant. At certain concentrations, the product has been shown to kill lab animals, the data sheet says.

Fire departments sometimes use the foamy substance to battle house or wild land fires. Once they are finished, firefighters routinely connect to a hydrant to flush the truck pumps. In this case, a hydrant near the Shoppes at Tynecastle was selected because "that was just the first hydrant from Seven Devils to here," Dugger said.

"There might have been 150 gallons of water, but as far as the foam, it's a concentrate, so there was less than a gallon and a half of foam in that water," he said.

The result was a bubbly, foamy river near the Profile Trail access off N.C. 105, which alarmed Blowing Rock resident Michael Chittum and led him to contact the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper, a spokesperson and watchdog for clean water issues.

Donna Lisenby, the current riverkeeper, argued that the firefighting foam is indeed a concern for waterways.

"Foam is harmful to the aquatic environment because it deprives streams of oxygen and can smother aquatic life," she said.

Lisenby discouraged local fire departments from using the foam except when absolutely necessary for highly flammable fuel fires.

She said she visited the Watauga River headwaters last week and found no signs of dead fish or other damage. She said she believed several factors came into play: the relatively small amount of foam, a higher river due to recent rainfall, the strong current at the headwaters and colder, more oxygenated water due to the winter season.

"I think we dodged a bullet this time," Lisenby said.