The Town of Beech Mountain experienced an incident at Buckeye Lake, the following account of what transpired was reviewed at the Town Council December 11, 2018 meeting followed by a public comment period, here is the recap of the questions and answers:

The Valve

  1. When was the valve at issue installed?1984
  2. What is the valve’s purpose? To provide mechanical control of water release for the Buckeye Lake Reservoir.
  3. What state or federal regulatory agencies have any jurisdiction over the valve or its functioning? United States Army Corp of Engineers, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Dam Safety, North Carolina Division of Water Resources, North Carolina Wildlife, US Fish and Game, North Carolina Public Water Supply.
  4. When was the last time, prior to the day of the incident, that the valve had been opened and closed? October 2016
  5. What correspondence has the Town had in the past three years with any state or federal agencies about the valve?

Numerous, and the most recent after a meeting with State agencies on October 15th of this year. The Army Corp informed the Town that they needed stream flow data through the installation of gauges and that the valve would be required to be inspected and operational. This purpose of this meeting was to request a change in the minimum release for the Town’s drinking water permit. Achieving a lower release would put the town in compliance with the existing permit and benefit the Town in the long run with the Watauga Intake project.


The Dive Contract

  1. What prompted the Town to contract with a dive company to inspect the valve? Maintenance to meet requirements of USACE and minimum flow regulations required by permit.
  2. Was there a Request for Proposal issued by the Town? No, due to the specialized work and under the recommendations of the Town’s Engineering group. This work is specialized. This type of contract is not subject to a request for proposal.
  3. If so, describe the scope of work in the RFP.  Inspection and operation to prepare analysis report.
  4. How many bidders were there for the contract? This was a specialized operation and no general bidding was done due to this fact.
  5. What was the scope of work in the final signed contract?  Inspection and operation to prepare analysis report.
  6. Who selected the contractor?  Director of Infrastructure, Robert Heaton
  7. Was the contractor required to have general liability insurance? All contractors performing work for the town are required to have general liability insurance.
  8. When was the contract to be performed? 11/19/18-through 11/21/18
  9. Who was to supervise the scope of work? Robert Heaton
  10. Was the contractor tasked to open and close the valve?   Yes.
  11. If so, was there any discussion about the possible adverse consequences to water levels at Buckeye Lake if the valve could not be closed? There was a great amount of discussion on this issue. The time of year, contractor availability and water recharge rates where primary factors.
  12. Was there any discussion about using a coffer dam or other method to isolate the valve from the lake to facilitate inspection? No and there was no recommendation from the engineer that this would be a better alternative.


The Incident

  1. What employees of the Town were present while the divers were at `Buckeye Lake? Daniel Davis, Ronnie McKinney
  2. Describe, using eyewitness accounts, what occurred at Buckeye Lake on November 20, 2018, starting from when the divers arrived until the diver was rescued.

            Daniel Davis, Public Works Superintendent, checked in with the divers just after lunch on November 20th. Reports from the contractor were that work was proceeding as expected and completion was expected Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. The first indication there was a problem with the inspection was when Dispatch notified the Fire Department at approximately 6:53 pm that the company was having difficulties. The emergency call for utilities went out around the same time that evening. Robert Heaton, Daniel Davis and Ronnie McKinney were contacted and alerted to the incident of a trapped diver underwater at Buckeye Lake. The Fire Department requested mobilization of the following resources: 1)Linville VFD-inflatable boat, diver and rope; 2) Carter County Tennessee-diver rescue team; 3) Rotary wing aircrafts; 4) Watauga and Avery Emergency Management; 5) Eggers Construction-Heavy equipment and pumps; 6) Carolina Water-pump; 7) Beech Mountain Police Department and Avery Sherriff Department-escorts; and 8) a fishing boat with large engine from Roan Mountain. Arriving on the scene, the water plant was requested to start operation to begin lowering the water level as the diver was trapped in the bottom of the lake. Robert and Daniel began mobilizing manpower and equipment for expected needs in the rescue operation. Twenty-Three Fire Department members were present along with four BMVFD apparatus. The first rescue diver was in the water at 7:33 pm and delivery of warm water to the diver began at 7:51 pm. The Carter County dive team arrived at 8:30 pm and pull rope was attached to the trapped diver at 8:45 pm. The trapped diver was removed from the release gate at 9:36 pm. He remained under water for a 22-minute decompression period and was removed from the Lake at 9:59 pm. From here the diver was transported to Watauga Medical Center. Ultimately, all parties on scene worked together, utilizing their equipment and Town resources to free the diver. Robert Heaton attempted to close the lake drain after the accident and was advised by contractor employees onsite that the valve actuator was not functioning properly. Daniel Davis met with the owner of the contract dive firm onsite and to plan further action regarding the lake drain.        

  1. What, if any, instructions did the divers receive from any Town employee on November 20, 2018, prior to the diver’s leg becoming entangled? Nothing additional and continue with the work as planned.
  2. Who decided to open the valve on November 20, 2018? Robert Heaton
  3. Was there any discussion on November 20 about the possible adverse consequences to Buckeye Lake levels if the valve could not be closed? The valve had been functioning properly this day and the previous day. No adverse consequences were expected.
  4. Was there an emergency plan in place in the event that the valve could not be closed? Extensive emergency response plans are in place across all systems and divisions of the Town’s Department of Infrastructure.


Emergency Response

  1. Did the Town have a written emergency plan to deal with a sudden loss of water at Buckeye Lake? Yes
  2. If so, was that plan executed? Yes
  3. If so, what were the parameters of that plan?  Activate the water shortage response plan to inform the public about Conservation needs and status. Activate the Beech Mountain Utilities Emergency Action Plan for direction to the Utility. Notify the NC Department of Environmental Health of the Situation. Activate the Watauga Hazard Mitigation Plan and continue in a prudent manner to evaluated, effect and manage the situation.
  4. What was the total cost to the Town to supply water by tanker and to supply bottled water? $1,664 for the Bottled water and $59,250 for the tankers. No charge by Banner Elk for the water.
  5. Has there been an after-action meeting of Town employees about the incident and the response? Yes, it was held Monday, November 26th after the event.
  6. If so, what opportunities for improvement were identified? Several procedural improvements. Make sure essential departments have gate code to the water plant. Need additional water hauling company contacts. Although Police dispatch answered calls, having Town staff available to answer calls would improve dissemination of information. Review changes in staff and make sure staff and council are trained to the level required. Current Utilities, Town Manager, Town Clerk and Fire and Police Chiefs are certified. Make sure meter reading can take place or investigate charging a surcharge so that meter reading is not necessary. Hire a fourth water treatment plant operator to allow better rotation for key operations. Billing with other towns/agencies for water and establish a price ahead of time. Alert Fire and Police a week prior to routine maintenance work including diving. Make sure map to water distribution site is on social media. Add twitter notifications in addition to Town Website and Facebook.

  As always, if you have any questions please call 828-387-4236 (Town Hall) for further information.