Retro Charlotte

Crowder’s Creek Fish Kill

Dead fish on the shore of Crowder’s Creek, 1971.
Dead fish on the shore of Crowder’s Creek, 1971. The Charlotte Observer

A story from the days when factories dumped their waste directly into waterways.

1971: Local fishermen (including a young Humpy Wheeler) discover scores of dead fish in Crowder's Creek near Lake Wylie - an Observer reporter joined them in the hunt for clues. Story below.

It was discovered that an animal rendering plant was pumping “about 800 gallons of waste material into the creek every minute” - but a 1972 study determined there were 30 additional pollution sources along the Crowder’s banks. Clean up efforts ensued.

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May 1, 1971

Fish Dying In Creek Off Catawba

‘Water That Carp And Catfish Won’t Live in, Nothing Will’

By Bradley Martin, Observer Staff Writer

Is it only the South Carolina part of Lake Wylie that’s badly polluted?

Ask the fish.

The fish in Crowder’s Creek, a stream that cuts through southwestern Gaston County before becoming the border with South Carolina near the point where it feeds into the Catawba River.

The fish are dying.

A reporter and two experienced fishermen took a boat into the mouth of Crowder’s Creek Thursday afternoon, and, in the space of an hour, found 75 dead fish along about one-half mile of the the southern shore.

The majority were crappies, but there were also 10 bream and six bass.

Amazingly, to the fishermen, there were four dead catfish and three carp. “Water that carp and catfish won’t live in, nothing will,” said H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler.

“This is one hell of a kill,” exclaimed Wheeler, who has been fishing Lake Wylie since his early boyhood in Belmont 25 years ago.

Several of the fish were examined and found to have patches of a brown substance, resembling steak sauce, on their scales. Wheeler conjectured that it might be a fungus.

Some fish had another substance coating their scales. Wheeler identified this as blood.

Farther upstream the party encountered a revolting sight - and smell. Just west of the N.C. 49 bridge, where the creek gets too shallow for use of an outboard motor, the water is deep brown.

Leo Lacy of Charlotte, who has been fishing in those waters for 41 years, said the water there was usually as clear as anywhere on Lake Wylie.

Fishermen are alarmed by the condition of the fish. One who has a cottage on Crowder’s Creek, Dick Robertson, brought the word back to Charlotte where he works.

Robertson was not along on Thursday’s expedition, but other fishermen up and down the navigable portion of the stream were asking what was in the water to kill the fish.

Wheeler, who operates his own public relations firm in Charlotte in the time he can spare from fishing, pointed to the clearer, shallow waters along the creek bank where fish - especially bass and crappie, should be spawning this time of year.

There should be a lot of motion there this time of year, he said, with the parent fish fanning the beds where the eggs have been laid and keeping the silt off the eggs.

“I see very little activity there,” Wheeler said.

Farther up the creek, in Gaston County, is the Carolina Southern Processing Co. Here the cold-plagued member of the party regained his sense of smell - unfortunately.

A rectangular pond about 500 feet long contained a black liquid. At intervals the liquid was sprayed through aeration devices.

It smelled like human excrement.

The visitors were curious about what happened to the black liquid once it left the pond. Did it move unfiltered into the adjoining Crowder’s Creek?

To find out, it was necessary to go into the woods across the creek and walk along through a briar patch.

At a point where one corner of the pond bank abuts the creek, a round pipe perhaps two or three feet in diameter pours great quantities of the black liquid directly into the creek.

The creek changes color there from brown to black, and again the smell is overpowering.

In a telephone interview, the general manager of the plant reluctantly discussed his operation.

The plant processes waste animal material, he said. The by-products - protein and fat - are sold commercially for animal feed, said manager Thomas F. Brooks.

The firm pumps about 800 gallons of waste material into the creek every minute, he said.

“The blackness is a liquid. The liquid is what’s left of the burned out animal matter and is a form of ash, I suppose. The blackness comes from the oxygen which has reacted with the bacteria in the water so the bacteria can live. The bacteria acts upon the waste animal matter and causes it to dissolve,” said Brooks.

Brooks said he didn’t know whether this bacteria would have any effect on animal life in Crowder’s Creek or Lake Wylie. “We are paying a large engineering firm ... to find this out.”

Brooks said he didn’t care to name any other source of pollution on the Creek, but he did say that Rock Hill “had a list of polluters quite long on Crowder’s Creek. We have nothing toxic we put in the water.”

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