Ask a simple question and finally, months later, you get an answer.  Kerr Lake Park Watch greatly acknowledges the efforts of Michael T Womack, Operations Project Manager at John H. Kerr Reservoir, in securing answers about the recreational effects of coal ash on the lake’s visitors.

Quietly and unobtrusively last week, the Virginia Department of Health and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services put out a joint statement or “fact sheet” declaring that direct exposure to coal ash can cause skin irritation.  The big news is that recreational contact with Kerr Lake water should cause no threat to humans with regard to the coal ash spill.  Regarding the eating of fish from Kerr Lake, there is important information as to why you should not consume certain species of fish from Kerr Lake.  That warning has little, if nothing, to do with coal ash. 

While the “Kerr Lake is OK” statements give our two million annual visitors to Kerr approval to swim, wade, fish, ski, tube and wallow in the water, the two departments use very guarded, certainly not emphatic approval, yet, it is what all of people have been clamoring for, an answer.

Late yesterday, the EPA issued an update stating that coal ash is currently not a threat to users of Kerr Lake.  The statement added, “B
eginning early April, the EPA started collecting sediment samples for Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) analysis. In this analytical method, samples are examined under a microscope by a trained analyst to visibly identify and count the types of material present (sand, clay, coal ash, etc.). The purpose of PLM analysis is to identify what percentage ash may be present in a sediment sample. Eleven locations were sampled from the Staunton River State Park and into the Kerr Reservoir. All PLM data collected to date in the Kerr Reservoir is non-detect for coal ash. 

Sampling of water quality, sediments and fish tissues will continue in Kerr Reservoir for as long as it is necessary to make sure the lake is safe for recreational uses. Collection of samples is being conducted by an interagency team that includes specialists with the VADEQ, NCDENR, FWS, and EPA.”

“I’ve been over a third of this lake by boat in the past five days and I see no difference, and I am glad that someone had the gumption to step up and give those of us who camp, picnic, boat and the like on Kerr Lake, the OK to enjoy it again this year.  Few people can count how high the economic impact of the 2 million plus visitors annually to Kerr,” commented KLPW’s spokesman Frank Timberlake.  “We had 7 no-show campers this weekend at the park we’re in and it surely wasn’t bad weather.  We’ve needed a definitive recreational use answer on coal ash for the last 60 days. A week later than the states but we’re glad to finally hear some positive news from the EPA.”

Here are the main questions and answers from VDH and NC DHHS:

Is exposure to coal ash harmful?

Coal ash is a gray, sand-like waste material that is made up of silica minerals and metals. Direct skin contact with coal ash, or with water and sediment containing coal ash, may cause skin irritation. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services continue to work with federal, state, and local agencies to evaluate water, sediment and fish sampling data and keep residents informed of any health risks.

Is it safe to swim and boat in Kerr Reservoir?

Sample results from the reservoir (for metals) are well below levels of concern for recreational use. However, if a swimmer comes in contact with what appears to be coal ash, health officials recommend thoroughly washing off with soap and water. Illness may occur from other lake water contaminants not associated with coal ash, such as bacteria and viruses. For that reason, it is important that swimmers always avoid swallowing any untreated or unfiltered lake water. If you swallow lake water and become ill, please seek medical attention.

Is it safe to eat fish from Kerr Reservoir?

Due to historical activities not associated with the coal ash release, VDH has an existing fish consumption advisory for the Kerr Reservoir and it includes the Dan River and parts of the Hyco and Banister rivers. Certain species of fish in these waters contain elevated levels of methylmercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Results of the analysis of fish tissue samples collected from the Dan River after the coal ash release do not warrant additional fish consumption advisories. For more information, visit: PublicHealthToxicology/Advisories/.

Kerr Lake in North Carolina is covered by a statewide ban on eating largemouth bass due to methylmercury. For more information on fish consumption advisories in North Carolina visit:

What should I do if I see dry coal ash on the banks of Kerr Reservoir?

If you see what appears to be ash on the banks of the reservoir, call Southside Health District at 434-738-6815 with site directions. Your call will be routed appropriately. You may also email the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at If you come in contact with what appears to be ash, wash off with soap and water. Do not kick the ash up and/or do not try to remove it yourself.

Coal ash, which is said to be more radioactive than uranium, is the waste material left after coal is burned and it contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of them toxic. 

The US Army Corps of Engineers has been seeking information on recreational safety of Kerr Lake waters as well as Kerr Lake Park Watch and other groups.  The EPA says it will continue ongoing monitoring of Kerr Lake as well as the Dan River.


Posted in: KLPW - Camping Safety, KLPW - Environmental, KLPW - MAIN NEWS, KLPW - WATER RELATED, KLPW - Water Safety

Leave a Comment (2) ↓


  1. Larry Matthews May 6, 2014

    Thanks to all of those government agencies for providing an “all clear” for all of us “Kerr lake lovers”.

  2. R Frank Timberlake May 7, 2014

    That’s why we thanked Michael Womack who manages the Corps’ interests at Kerr Lake. We know that he started pushing for the answers we wanted and he helped get them. We will leave the “he said, she said” and the lawsuits to others. Our concern is limited to human recreational interaction with the water of Kerr Lake.

    There are so many more promotable things and issues about Kerr Lake. It’s time to move forward and on.


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