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The serene White River snaked through the hollows of the Arkansas Ozarks for millennia. Then, in the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam to create a freshwater reservoir and named it Beaver Lake.
Inundated were farms, homesteads, entire villages — and a turn-of-the 20th-century health resort known as Monte Ne.
In 1901, deciding to take advantage of the region’s many springs, wealthy lawyer and businessman Coin Harvey built a 300-acre valley spa several miles east of the small city of Rogers. Monte Ne Resort featured immense log hotels, an indoor spring-fed plunge pool, a dance pavilion, a limestone-hewn outdoor amphitheater, and a golf course.
Harvey cleverly laid a railroad spur to his popular vacation destination. Thousands came to take the waters and Monte Ne prospered for two decades. But the Depression broke the resort. Three decades later an immense dam buried it under millions of tons of water.
Still, visitors continued to come to Monte Ne Cove — to picnic, swim in the bay and snorkel among the historic ruins.
In recent years, however, even divers have stopped visiting. The underwater site — which now sits on the National Register of Historic places — is being buried under layers of aluminum-laced silt.
At a glance, one would not guess that Jan Lancaster — a tall, middle-aged redhead dressed in a tailored business suit — would be the type to wage a one-woman environmental campaign to save Monte Ne from destruction.
“Watch out for snakes,” she says as she gingerly steps towards the cove’s shoreline, her black high-heel shoes crunching in the gravel.
Lancaster loves this place. A native of Springdale, she has been coming to Monte Ne since she was a small child. She carries around a family photo of herself and her siblings playing among the ruins.
Stopping at the water’s edge in the afternoon, she gazes across the cove. A single crow caws in the distance.
“If you go to other spring-fed places in the Ozarks, the water is a clear deep blue- green,” she says. “Here the water is turbid and has a grey cast.”
She leans over and picks up a stick.
“I want to show you something,” Lancaster says, and stabs at some mud in the water.
“See that?” A plume of scum quickly rises, then settles. “Regular mud would float off, but this is not mud. It’s aluminum hydroxide.”
Beds of the muck — a peculiar soft yellow clay — slithered in view along portions of the shoreline.
Lancaster gestured towards the middle of the bay.
“In some places the sludge is more than 10 feet deep,” she says. “And it never dissolves. Never goes away.”
Jan Lancaster is spokesperson for the Friends of Monte Ne Historic Preservation Group, which seeks to restore the 3,300-acre watershed. A successful self-employed businesswoman and civic volunteer, Lancaster tells anyone who will listen about what is happening to the cove.
Last January, Lancaster filed a complaint with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, charging that the Beaver Water District, located several miles upstream along a tributary of Phillips Creek, was polluting Monte Ne Bay.
Beaver Water District wholesales drinking water to Washington and Benton counties. The district treats raw lake water with alum (aluminum sulfate), a clarifying agent that settles out sediments. In water, alum pairs with hydroxyl water ions to become a gelatinous substance known as aluminum hydroxide.
The clarified water is then run through filters, chlorinated, fluoridated and piped to Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale.
The waste sludge is hauled off to a landfill or spread on nearby farm fields. Filters that cleanse the water are routinely backwashed with millions of gallons of more water, and that effluent is also treated and discharged into Phillips Creek, which leads to Monte Ne Cove.
Aluminum hydroxide has been accumulating, some say for years, in the limestone channels of the cove, smothering the bottom of the bay and turning black the deeper it gets.
When the lake ebbs, Lancaster says, smelly yellow-grey sludge beds surface, and are as treacherous as quicksand for both wildlife and humans. A biologist surveying the cove with Lancaster accidentally stepped into a sludge bed, sank up to his hips and had to be pulled out with a rope.
“No telling what is buried here,” she says, glancing back ominously.
“We have done a lot of testing,” says Dick Cassat, chief of ADEQ’s technical services division. “We found that the sediments in the cove contain elevated levels of heavy metals.” Aluminum levels in the sediment were assessed to be around 9 percent.
“They pose no risk to public health or compromise water quality, but they may be toxic to certain aquatic life in the bottom of the cove,” Cassat said.
After its testing, the ADEQ fined the water district $9,000 for eight violations of its federal permit. (ADEQ’s reports were forwarded to the criminal investigator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says Martin Maner, ADEQ water division chief. “But EPA turned the responsibility for maintaining compliance back to the state.”)
ADEQ imposed the fine under an order that requires the district to clean up its operation.
Cassat said soil samples from the cove also indicated elevated levels of barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and most notably arsenic — an ingredient in chicken feed widely used by the poultry industry.
“I am more worried about the arsenic than about the aluminum,” Cassat says.
Pat Costner, senior science advisor for GreenPeace International and a resident of Northwest Arkansas, says although the aluminum loading in Monte Ne may not pose a substantial risk, residents should be vigilant.
“Aluminum is known to cause neurological disorders in all species studied, including humans, no matter what the route of exposure and its chemical form,” Costner says, adding that studies indicate infants are especially susceptible to aluminum poisoning, which can lead to degenerative bone and kidney disease.
Further, Costner says, “Aluminum does bioaccumulate [stay in the body], but not enormously like dioxins and some of the persistent organic pollutants. So the fish in the vicinity of the sludge dump — those that haven’t suffocated — may have elevated aluminum levels.”
Residents continue to swim and catch fish in the cove at their own risk. No signs are posted warning of what lurks beneath.
The ADEQ will conduct more tests after lake levels drop later this year to see how deep the sludge is, Cassat says. “We will try to identify high deposit areas and try to map that,” Dick Cassat says.
While the Beaver Water District was fined $9,000, ADEQ this summer fined area construction companies nearly a quarter million dollars for sediments and chemicals in storm water runoff.
“My confidence in ADEQ is less than zero,” says Jim Ecker, director of environmental services for Benton County.
Ecker himself has documented effluent discharge with photographs and has sent two soil samples and a water sample to an independent lab for testing.
“The tests came back indicating 13 to 14 percent aluminum compounds in the sludge,” Ecker says. “Although we have a high aluminum content in our soils here, it is clearly not aluminum hydroxide.”
Ecker says the district is the only industry that could be responsible for the sludge build up.
Last May, the Benton County Quorum Court drew up a resolution recommending the sludge be removed from the cove. Ecker supports the move.
“If the lake is high, they can take a dredge and suck it up,” Ecker says. “Or when it’s low, they can get in there with a front end loader and haul it off.”
“And my contention is that BWD should pay for cleaning it up,” Ecker says.
ADEQ’s Cassat claims that dredging the soft sediments will only spread them deeper into the water.
“But hauling the dry solids out may be a solution,” Cassat says.
Beaver Water District boss Alan Fortenberry would not comment on any cleanup of Monte Ne cove. But he has gone on record with the claim that the aluminum levels in the cove pose no health risk.
Fortenberry did, however, give a reporter a tour of the facility, driving his white SUV around its 40-acre gated water treatment plant and pointing out new construction.
“We are adding another 60-million-gallon-a-day treatment plant, another intake facility and another raw water line,” Fortenberry says over the din of backhoes and trucks.
The nonprofit utility is doing a brisk business. Some $12 million of its reserves is being invested in plant upgrades. The balance of an $82 million expansion will be paid for with sales from revenue bonds.
The upgrade is necessary to keep pace with the population boom in the region, Fortenberry says.
“Our improved facility will serve Northwest Arkansas until 2025.”
The current plant can process up to 80 million gallons of water a day in its two treatment facilities. On average the district sells 42 million gallons a day. Summertime demand can reach as high as 70 million gallons.
Pulling up to an immense shallow concrete basin, Fortenberry explains how a million gallons of wastewater a day are treated before being released into a nearby creek.
He points to a large pipe disgorging thick golden brown water into a settling lagoon.
“See down there?” he says. “Those are the solids we remove from the lake which are caught on the filters — and this is what they look like.”
He stoops and grabs some debris. In his open palm Fortenberry held what he called water treatment solids — chunks of fine dark yellow clay.
Fortenberry says the district is spending $5.2 million to comply with the ADEQ order to improve its water treatment solids handling.
“That will be finished next year. That is the bottom line.”
Dealing with its wastewater has been a challenge for the district for some years, Fortenberry says. In the early 1980s, the Beaver Irrigation District contracted to pipe the water district’s raw wastewater to local farmers for use as irrigation for their crops.
But one of the farmers, who bought into the district water rights, says the effluent ruined his pond and slimed his fields.
Fortenberry acknowledged that a detention basin that held untreated discharge water for the now defunct district would back up periodically and overflow into Phillips Creek.
“We just couldn’t process the wastewater fast enough,” Fortenberry says.
Making matters worse, record precipitation this year, coupled with widespread construction storm water runoff, caused thousands of tons of sediment to inundate the watershed.
“This past spring tremendous rains caused extreme turbidity and large sediment loads coming into Beaver Lake,” Fortenberry says. “It was very serious, but we dealt with it.”
Beaver Water District awarded a $125,000 grant this past spring to Audubon Arkansas to find a way to stem the flow of construction sediment into the watershed. The local chapter will study erosion and land use along the West Fork of the White River.
The Beaver Water District may be in violation of the Clean Water Act as well.
James Hoelscher, a district lab supervisor, has filed suit in federal court in Fayetteville claiming that he was fired from BWD for blowing the whistle on the district. The complaint also accuses the district of violating its federal operating permit under the Clean Water Act.
Last December, Hoelscher anonymously tipped off ADEQ about the sludge build-up in Monte Ne Cove. Hoelscher, a district employee for 18 years, was fired the following February.
The district claims he was terminated for insubordination. A source close to Hoelscher says he witnessed hundreds of illegal effluent discharges into Phillips Creek but was ordered to take water discharge samples only when effluent levels were diminished, all of which the district denies.
Attorneys for the Beaver Water District worked to get the suit dismissed, but in late November, a judge denied the request and said that Hoelscher could move forward with his lawsuit.
Benton County Environmental Director Ecker has suspected a problem all along.
The problem with permit compliance is that it’s “self-checking,” he says. “They take one sample every 60 days. So I think they run and do whatever for 59 days, then clean up their water sample and say everything is fine. That allows for that kind of abuse.
“They have been operating at or exceeding their capacity, treating all the drinking water they want,” Ecker says. “But those settling lagoons have their space and time limits.”
Fortenberry says that his district discharge is in accordance with its permit.
In March the ADEQ also investigated construction storm water run-off caused by the district’s new construction. Jan Lancaster filed a complaint saying that sediments from a freshly dug 60-inch raw water intake line had washed into Phillips Creek, and on into the cove.
But since then, according to Jim Ecker, zero effluent has been seen running into Phillips Creek.
He speculates that the district has been cycling their wastewater back into the water supply — allowable under certain EPA rules — in order to improve the appearance of Monte Ne Cove.
“My contention is they are trying to dry the creek up so it does not look so bad,” Ecker says. “You can drive around the whole water district and you can’t see any discharge.”
In recent weeks Beaver Lake tap water has been plagued with extreme odor and taste problems. In previous years, the phenomenon, said to be unpleasant but harmless, has been attributed to “lake turnover,” or inversion brought on by cooler air temperatures, which churns up excess algae.
“These odor and taste problems are expected this time of year,” Fortenberry says.
But this year, the problem seems even worse.
Still, the lousy tasting water does not bother Allan Fortenberry.
“I drink my water unfiltered, straight from the tap,” he says proudly. “It’s delicious.”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Mike Masterson, a resident of Northwest Arkansas, has made the Monte Ne Cove situation a crusade of sorts.
“Pollution in Monte Ne bay was first reported as far back as the 1970s, then again in 1984, by Fayetteville Mayor Fred Hanna,” he wrote. “In 1984, a state environmental official ordered Beaver Water District to stop polluting Beaver Lake with this aluminum waste treatment sludge and to clean up what it already had done.
“That order was politically overridden in Little Rock. The sludge continues to accumulate and is now moving steadily into the main lake.”
ADEQ needs to force a cleanup now in the public interest, Masterson contends. “The Beaver District remarkably has tens of millions of dollars held in reserves, so cleaning up the sludge shouldn’t pose a financial problem whatsoever, even if it costs several of those millions.”
Masterson says the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the watershed, has also been negligent.
“The U.S. Corps of Engineers has failed shamefully for decades in effectively regulating the flow of this sludge into Beaver Lake,” Masterson says. “It is impossible to be everyone’s lunch-buddy and an effective regulator — all at the same time.”
The drive into Monte Ne Cove is sort of thrilling. Head east off Business 71 south of Rogers onto Highway 94. Follow the curvy two-lane highway for several miles, down, down into a beautiful forested valley.
The road opens up and ends on the beach.
Among the isolated modern cabins and cottages stand the ruins of old Monte Ne Resort, cut limestone foundations and an old chimney.
When lake levels drop dramatically, an immense limestone amphitheater emerges into the light.
Those who wish to preserve this place are hoping for an extremely dry autumn, so that ADEQ can drill the core samples to determine how much is buried there.
Watching the lake water gently lap the shore, Jan Lancaster took a moment before heading home for supper.
She said she won’t rest until the cove is cleaned up, both ecologically and historically.
“Friends of Monte Ne Preservation Group want to rebuild some of the old structures, maybe install some interpretation, preserve what’s left.”
Lancaster recited a favorite anecdote about the amount of pollution in the cove.
“Based on our preliminary research,” Lancaster said, “the cove contains several thousand 12-cubic-foot dumptruck loads of sediment. We assessed the volume of aluminum in the sediment — based on the amount of aluminum in a single beverage can — multiplied that by 113 million cans, then estimated the fines assessed for littering one aluminum can — that, when multiplied, would be somewhere around the national debt.”
Lancaster is also raising money to conduct an independent core sampling of the lake bottom at Monte Ne Cove. She says if she can prove the extent of the damage, those who are liable will be forced to clean it up.
The new Beaver Water District is projected to go on line in the summer of 2005.
The district will continue to discharge into the tributary of Phillips Creek that leads to Monte Ne Cove.
Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and public broadcast producer.