Posted signs of an old pollution problem remain prevalent along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) has posted the signs each summer since 1993 to warn visitors of brewing bacteria that flares up during the summer months.
Although much attention was given to the failure of Gatlinburg's Wastewater Plant in 2011, tests showed the river quickly recovered from any short-term contamination resulting from the accident. Historically the sources of contamination have come from things like old septic tanks and urban runoff. Communities and Sevier County have made several improvements through the years to reduce pollution.
"Last summer, state testing showed the contamination improved to a level where it would not be necessary to post [the signs] anymore," said Larry Waters, Sevier County Mayor. "That was great news because we have made a lot of improvements. The environment is our business up here because tourism is our business."
Despite the passing grade in 2011, TDEC decided to be on the safe side and post the warning signs along the river again this summer. TDEC spokesperson Meg Lockhart said the decision was driven in part by concerns an unusually rainy 2011 diluted the data.
"Staff decided to obtain additional data this year during dry weather season, which is typically when bacteria levels are the highest due to reduced dilution," wrote Lockhart.
TDEC said the decision to post warning signs was influenced by the volume of people who visit the area.
"Because of the location of the waterbody and the significant possible exposure of many people to pollutants from water contact recreation, we have taken a conservative approach to warning the public about risks." Lockhart added, "We believe this is the appropriate action and protective of public health. TDEC will maintain posting until we can be certain that the stream is safe for recreation."
Waters said the signs should be taken down until tests actually prove the water is polluted again.
"We will continue testing the river due to the high usage. If there should be a reason to, we can put the posting back at a later date," said Waters. "I think we have improved. We think it is time to remove the posting. We thing they should be taken down and we can always put them back up."
Waters categorized the debate as a "friendly disagreement" with TDEC and said the fact there is a debate over sign removal at all is good news.
"We have all done a lot to improve and hopefully the tests will continue to show our efforts are paying off," said Waters. "We take the environment very seriously and are doing everything we can to take care of it."