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Diesel leak at Haywood Regional threatens Jones Cove Branch. Swim, fishing advisory issued.

Jones Cove Branch runs into Richland Creek which runs into the Pigeon River.
Lilly Knoepp
Jones Cove Branch runs into Richland Creek, which runs into the Pigeon River. Pictured is the Pigeon in 2021.

More than 2,000 gallons of diesel from Haywood Regional Medical Center ran into Jones Cove Branch over the weekend. The spill was found on Saturday night and contained by early Sunday morning, according to Haywood County Emergency Services.

Jones Cove Branch runs on either side of the hospital property. An advisory is in place warning against swimming or fishing in Jones Cove Creek, Richland Creek below Jones Cove and the Pigeon River below Richland Creek.

The spill was first reported around 8 p.m., Saturday in Clyde. Within an hour, Junaluska Fire Department, supported by the Clyde Fire Department, traced the fuel to the stormwater system at Haywood Regional Medical Center, according to Haywood County Emergency Services.

“We are grateful to the swift assistance of all the partner agencies who helped contain the spill as quickly as possible. Due to their significant assistance, the majority of the spill was successfully contained above the constructed underflow dam,” Emergency Services Director Travis Donaldson said in a press release.

Haywood Regional Medical Center staff and fire personnel said equipment failure may have caused the leak. Haywood Medical Center said the cause of the incident, which leaked the equivalent of roughly 47 barrels, is still under investigation.

Haywood County Emergency Services contacted NC Emergency Management and requested the North Carolina Regional Response Team 6 (RRT-6) from Asheville Fire Department to create a containment plan.

“In this one, getting it contained at the source was the first big thing to do - and that happened quickly. Then getting it contained in the waterway was the next step,” Haywood County Emergency Services Public Information Officer Allison Richmond said.

Haywood Regional Medical Center used Hepaco, an environmental hazmat contractor, vacuum trucks to remove spilled diesel. Workers also placed specialized containment booms across Jones Cove Branch and Richland Creek and reinforced existing booms. Richland Creek runs into the Pigeon River.

The N.C. Agricultural Department was also called in to assist farmers in the area who could have been impacted. Haywood Emergency Services brought water to at least one farm to give cattle access to clean water. Some farmers let the cattle use the creek while others do not.

Haywood Regional Medical Center thanked the response teams and said there was no interruption to hospital operations.

“The safety of patients, staff, and our community is our top priority. HRMC expresses gratitude for the swift response of the Junaluska Fire Department and the Haywood County Emergency Management Team, whose efforts have been crucial in addressing the situation,” Regional Director, Marketing & Communication Andie Robbins said in a statement.

Haywood Regional Medical Center is a Duke Lifepoint Hospital. LifePoint Health was purchased in 2018 by for-profit RCCH Healthcare which operates in 12 states and is owned by private equity firm Apollo Management Group.

Haywood EMS also said that the necessary regulatory authorities were notified through state emergency management officials. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Agent reviewed the on-site on Sunday afternoon.

The hospital is about five miles from the former Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton. The former mill has continued to rack up environmental violations over the past year, and federal authorities have become involved in recent months. Richmond said that the overall impact will be monitored by state and federal agencies.

“That’s something that the EPA and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will look at the water resources there. That goes beyond our scope,” Richmond said.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources division is spearheading additional cleaning and remediation efforts over the next several weeks. Haywood County Emergency Management said regulatory and environmental protection agencies will monitor the spill site until all hazards are fully mitigated.

Haywood County Environmental Health Services Division is issuing a recreational water advisory for all of Jones Cove Branch, Richland Creek below Jones Cove Branch, Pigeon River below Richland Creek. The advisory will remain in effect until the water is confirmed to be safe.

The recreational advisory recommends:

  •  Avoid swimming, wading or fishing in these areas. 
  • Avoid skin contact with water, soil and sediment in or near the river.
  • If skin comes in contact with contaminated sediment or water, wash with soap and water.
  • If you are concerned that you, your family or pets have been exposed to these waterways contact your health care provider or veterinarian.
Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.