Return to story

River bacteria remain mystery

September 21, 2012 12:10 am


Officials haven't figured out what's causing contamination at Fairview Beach, but they are rallying the troops to try to pinpoint the problem.

Yesterday, 16 local and state government representatives, along with four people from the Fairview Beach Residents Association, sat around a table at the village's firehouse.

They talked for almost 3 hours about water samples and swimming advisories that have been posted regularly since 2004, warning people to stay out of the Potomac River at the King George County beach because of high levels of bacteria.

The group also heard about the efforts of Fairview Beach residents Herb Cover and Janet Harrover, who took 179 water samples this swimming season and last.

Cover said he was tired of having the same conversation with people outside the beach. Someone would ask about weekend plans, then cringe when he said he wanted to enjoy the water at Fairview Beach.

"That dirty place?" is how they'd respond, Cover said. "I want to correct that, if there's anything we can do."


The group agreed there's still no proof of what's producing high levels of waterborne bacteria that can cause eye and ear infections and gastrointestinal illness.

But those gathered did agree that one drainpipe, which runs from the far end of a trailer park near State Route 218 to about 400 feet from a waterfront restaurant, warranted more research.

"The concrete pipe does seem to be a big contributor, but we don't really know what's going on with it," said James Beckley, a quality assurance coordinator with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in Richmond.

He's the one who taught Fairview Beach residents how to do the home tests, which are about one-tenth the cost of a lab test.

Residents gather water from the river or from streams and pipes that run into it in sterile bottles. They mix it with a substance to create a gel and spread it on a Petri dish.

Then, they count the number of dark-blue and purple dots to determine how many colonies of E. coli bacteria are present.

Beckley suggested getting water samples at both ends of the drainpipe. If the water is bacteria-free at the top of the pipe but contaminated at the bottom, there might be an illegal sewage connection or some leakage from a drain field in between, he said.

If water levels at the top and bottom of the pipe are different, it would be worth running a camera through the pipe to see what's there, Beckley said.


Those at the meeting said no one really knows what shape the underground pipes are in at Fairview Beach, much less how many drain fields and septic systems are in place. Or, how they've been repaired and maintained over the years.

"There's just so much that got stuffed in there over the years," said Jerry Shrewsbury, who lives in the trailer park owned by Fairview B LLC, a Northern Virginia partnership. "God only knows what's in the ground."

Shrewsbury does some maintenance for the trailer park. He's dug up pipes from mobile homes to septic tanks and has found fixes that weren't exactly up to code.

"One time, I found a repair made with a beer can," he said.

Resident Harrover mentioned similar jury-rigging. When the village established its own sanitation district--before the King George Service Authority came about--people dug their own ditch from the main line to their homes and connected to the pipe.

She's certain that plenty of septic tanks and drain fields were left as they were. By law, they're supposed to be drained, filled with sand and covered with lime, said Tommy Thompson, the Rappahannock Area Health District's environmental health supervisor.

Harrover and others wondered if bacteria that remained in those tanks, and even in the sand from "back in the day," when Shrewsbury said houses openly discharged waste into the water, might get stirred up when the weather gets bad.

Because this year, four of five times the bacteria levels at Fairview Beach exceeded state numbers, there had been a severe storm and high winds, Thompson said.

His agency tests the water at Fairview Beach weekly from May to September.

Beckley doubted that bacteria could still be present in septic tanks from the 1970s and '80s, given that the bacteria wouldn't have had any waste to feed it.

Group members talked about drain fields serving the trailer park, and Thompson was surprised to learn that several are still in use. He thought none were.

There are 28 trailers in the park and 12 are on county water and sewer. They apparently connected illegally some time ago, and the county's Service Authority didn't know about them until it did smoke tests to see if any of its pipes were leaking and causing the bacteria problem.

The current trailer park owners eventually paid for the connections to county utilities, said Chris Thomas, Service Authority general manager.


When Cover reported results from testing he and Harrover did, he found some hot spots near the drain pipe in question, but he also found high numbers of bacteria in the water near several other streets not connected to the pipe.

And, he often found higher levels near the shoreline than where the water was chest-high.

"There were many spots we couldn't explain," he said.

Cover did point out that owners of the restaurant, store and trailer park had complied with varied requests to run dye through sewer lines to see if the colored substance ended up in the river.

None did.

Likewise, Shrewsbury said the Service Authority had committed its resources to the contamination problem, even though the majority of trailers aren't on the county system.

Supervisor John LoBuglio, whose district includes Fairview Beach, said he was glad to see varied groups around the table.

"It's not just one person's problem," he said.

Cover also was grateful that Jennifer Carlson from the DEQ's Woodbridge office called the meeting.

"I never knew there was so much interest in Fairview Beach," he said.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.