Sutton Lake Algae Bloom Makes Rumor Mill Blossom
'Alien space poop' has not killed 2 people
28 June 2013
By Rick Steelhammer
SUTTON, W.Va. -- Social media reports to the contrary, Sutton Lake
is neither closed to boaters and swimmers nor the host medium for
a strain of flesh-eating bacteria that has claimed two lives.
False rumors that followed the appearance of a blue-green algae
bloom on June 21 have cost Sutton Lake Marina owner Bill Hunt at
least $40,000 in cancelled boat reservation fees alone.
"I don't know how you ever get that back," Hunt said, standing
outside the entrance to his marina's store and restaurant. "Here
it is, a beautiful Friday morning, and every one of our rental
boats is here at the dock, not being used."
"I'll bet we've answered 100 calls a day from people asking if
it's true the lake is closed," said Melinda Frank, the marina's
general manager. "It's never closed. People have been swimming and
boating, and everyone's fine. But people have been reading on
Facebook that we're closed, that there's flesh-eating bacteria
here, and that two people have died from it."
As a result, many potential Sutton Lake users have chosen to go
"I wouldn't be surprised to see a social media report that it's
all caused by alien space poop landing in Sutton Lake," Hunt said.
To be clear, there are no flesh-eating bacteria at Sutton Lake,
there have been no deaths here, and no one has been sickened by
coming in contact with blooms of blue-green algae that have, in
fact, been spotted here during the past week. The lake has not
Business at the lake began turning from usual to unusual on June
21, when a member of the public spotted what was initially thought
to be a gasoline slick coating the surface of the small, roped-off
swimming area at South Abutment Beach, located in the shadow of
the Sutton Dam. After initially reporting the anomaly to Frank,
the caller was referred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers'
resource manager's office at the dam.
When corps personnel investigated the report, they compared what
they saw at South Abutment Beach to photos that had been forwarded
to them earlier in the year, depicting blue-green algae blooms
that had been raising health concerns at corps-managed reservoirs
"They seemed to match," said Sutton Lake Resource Manager Keith
Ann Nuckles, "so we took some water samples and called Steve
Foster," a limnologist, or freshwater biologist, at the corps'
district headquarters in Huntington.
In strong-enough concentrations, blue-green algae blooms are
capable of producing toxins that can be harmful to humans,
particularly small children. Adverse effects of exposure to the
toxins range from rashes and hay fever-like symptoms to vomiting
"Steve was concerned enough to meet us in Charleston that night to
take the samples back to Huntington for processing and analysis,"
Foster was able to quickly identify the scummy algae from South
Abutment Beach as being from the Anabaena, or potentially
toxin-producing blue-green strain.
"I could tell right away it exceeded our thresholds, and could
pose a hazard to people and pets," Foster said.
While the World Health Organization considers 100,000 cells per
milliliter concentrations of blue-green algae to be potentially
dangerous to humans, the concentration found at South Abutment
Beach was determined to be 1.2 million cells per milliliter.
Nuckles and her staff closed the swimming area at South Abutment
Beach the night of June 21 and began posting caution posters at
all entrances to the lake, warning visitors to avoid drinking from
the lake and discouraging them from swimming and water skiing
while the blooms were present.
Corps of Engineers personnel sampled the lake water again Monday
and Tuesday, and searched for additional blue-green algae blooms.
"There was a large bloom in mid-lake on Monday," Foster said. "It
smelled like decaying grass and onion."
Blooms were not found in the vicinity of a much larger swimming
area at Bee Run Beach, adjacent to Hunt's marina, but corps
officials said blooms were found at sites upstream and downstream
Toxins might or might not be present within the blooms, and blooms
can be moved by wind and waves, leaving toxins behind in clear
By Tuesday, however, water samples taken at the lake showed that
concentrations of Anabaena had dropped below 20,000 cells per
milliliter, well below the corps' safety threshold. By Friday, no
blooms were visible on the lake.
South Abutment Beach was reopened to swimmers Friday afternoon.
Warning signs across the lake were replaced with advisory posters,
cautioning lake users not to drink lake water, to avoid swallowing
water while swimming and water skiing, and to avoid areas with
visible algae accumulations.
If the concentration stays below 20,000 cells per milliliter for
two weeks, advisory posters regarding the algae blooms will be
"That should be on July 9," Foster said.
Foster said it is not known what triggered the blue-green algae
blooms at Sutton Lake, the first West Virginia reservoir to
produce noteworthy concentrations of the substance. What caused
concentrations of the algae to dissipate back to safe levels also
remains a mystery.
"It's a relatively new phenomenon in this region, showing up in
Ohio in the past five or six years," Foster said. Nutrient loads,
temperature and exposure to sunlight are all believed to affect
the growth of the algae.
There are too many variables at play to know what makes the algae
strain come and go, he said.
Hunt said the Corps of Engineers was right to inform the public of
a potential health hazard, but he thought the agency could have
taken more care in how news of the algae bloom was presented to
"The corps put out a news release that was accurate, when it
announced that the swimming beach at South Abutment was being
closed," he said. "What they didn't say was that beach represented
less than one tenth of a percent of the lake's shoreline. That
night, TV stations reported that the lake was closed, and two
minutes after the warning posters went up, they were on Facebook,
and the rumors began to start."
Hunt said he hopes boaters and other lake users will receive
enough correct information on the lake's status to enjoy spending
the Fourth of July weekend at the cool, clear reservoir.
"We're open and we're looking forward to people coming here for
what is usually one of our biggest weekends," he said. "Up until
last Friday, this has been a super season for us."
Blue-green algae cell counts will be posted on the Huntington
District's website, here.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or