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Harmful algae in Sutton Lake halts swimming

By Candace Nelson

Update: Swimming has resumed at the South Abutment Beach. Click here for more information:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- High levels of harmful blue-green algae at Sutton Lake have halted swimming and waterskiing.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cautioning swimmers and boaters about coming into contact with a bloom of blue-green algae, which is capable of producing toxins harmful to children and animals.

A local marina owner said the public reaction to the situation is costing him visitors.

"I'm doing as well as an owner of a marina that has incorrectly been labeled as 'closed' can be," said Bill Hunt, co-owner of Sutton Lake Marina.

Hunt said the Corps of Engineers' attempt to caution the public has had detrimental effects on his business.

"Their position is not accurate. In an attempt to protect the public, they've gone into a huge overreaction," Hunt said. "They've gone about it in a way that has put an incredible scare into the public. The lake isn't closed; there isn't flesh-eating bacteria."

Blue-green algae is present in all lakes, but during certain weather and water conditions can become concentrated at levels that can cause adverse health effects to people and animals, said Chuck Minsker, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Most blooms produce skin toxins that can cause a rash, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and flu-like symptoms. Some blooms can produce nerve and liver toxins, which are extremely dangerous.

Officials with the Corps of Engineers said those at the lake should avoid contact with any questionable water that may have an odd color or unusual odor.

Toxins may or may not be present at the location of the blooms. They can be moved by wind and water, which can leave unapparent toxins behind.

"Our park rangers know what to look for, and they spotted the existence," Minsker said. "Our specialists test the water and determined the concentration is high enough to be of concern."

At the marina, Hunt said signs at the lake have scared the public, who then posted them to social media and added their own thoughts. That's how rumors of the situation being worse than it is spread, he said. While he said he thinks avoiding a visible pile of green scum would be a good idea, he notes the affected area is just a portion of the lake.

"We have no boaters, nobody on the swimming beach; we're processing dozens of cancellations for rental boats each day," Hunt said. "We've had probably 30 to 45 cancellations, and they're continuing to come in each day."

Minsker said swimming at the South Abutment Beach is not permitted, but the beach and its facilities are open to the public. Rangers have posted signs and are handing out brochures, he said.

Blooms have not been reported at the Bee Run Beach, but they are present both upstream and downstream. The beach is available for use at this time, but signs are up to inform the public of potential risk.

Hunt encourages the public to continue to come out.

"The lake is safe," Hunt said. "Scare tactics shouldn't stop people from enjoying a great asset we have here in West Virginia. They shouldn't cancel family vacations they've had planned for a year."

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the health officer and executive director at Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said blue-green algae does contain toxins that are associated with negative affects on the liver and nervous system in both people and animals.

"Also when you have these toxins, the algae can become airborne and trigger asthma in humans as well as other allergic reactions," Gupta said. "You definitely don't want to be swimming in that ... the seeing-eye test is not always correct. Even if water looks clear, it could have potential pathogens."

The Corps of Engineers plans to increase the outflow at the Sutton Dam from 300 cubic feet per second to 1,000 cubic feet per second over a four-hour period Friday morning to determine if releases can reduce the growth of the blue-green algae in the lake.

The release is within normal flow levels, and the volume will dilute any toxin concentrations to levels that will not cause adverse health effects in downstream areas.

Park Rangers at Sutton Lake are working with the local health department and the Department of Natural Resources to monitor the water quality and inform visitors.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Quality Team will continue to collect samples for cell counts. When cell counts go below 100,000 cells per milliliter, caution signs will be changed to advisory signs. When cell counts go below 20,000 cells per milliliter for two consecutive weeks, signs will be removed. The cell counts will be posted on the Huntington District website at .

Minsker said no other lakes in the Huntington District show signs of a hazardous bloom of blue-green algae.

For more information, call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs division at 304-399-5353 or 304-360-5757.

Contact writer Candace Nelson at or 304-348-5148. Follow her at


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