A company clear-cut vast tracts of mountain forest, jeopardizing the survival of a beloved, unique trout
Companies owned by Alleghany County-based Bottomley Properties have a long violation history; DEQ has yet to fine them for latest round of damage.
The brookies were in danger of dying.
Last June, after the spring thaw and a hard summer rain, a torrent of mud, dirt and rock, in some spots 2 feet deep, had gushed into Ramey Creek and its tributaries, potentially suffocating the fish or destroying their home.
Upstream, Bottomley Properties, a company based in Alleghany County with operations in several states and a long violation history, had been timbering on 360 acres of mountain forest to expand its cattle grazing operations.
Until then, trees had been absorbing rainwater and stabilizing the soil. But Bottomley had clear-cut right up to the stream banks, leaving them unstable. Now there was little left to counter the force of the rain.
The state Wildlife Resources Commission had been concerned about the health of the brookies – a term of endearment for the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout – in Ramey Creek for nearly a year. A fragile and precarious species, they live only in the pristine, cold headwaters of mountain streams, where no other fish can thrive. Every stream is home to its own genetically distinct line of brookie. And every line of brookie is significant.
“If you lose genetic line or a stream, that population is gone forever,” Robby Abou-Rizk, president of Blue Ridge NC Trout Unlimited said. “They don’t survive any other way.”
In this part of the state, the Bottomley family is well known and land rich. They own more than 1,700 acres in Alleghany and Surry counties, much of it near the Blue Ridge Parkway, according to property tax records. Here they grow Christmas trees and pumpkins, as well as raise beef cattle.
From 1996 to 2013, several Bottomley-owned companies received more than $360,000 in federal farm subsidies, according to an Environmental Working Group database. Yet while accepting government money, those enterprises consistently flouted workplace and environmental laws, resulting in settlements and fines from the U.S. Department of Labor and the NC Department of Environmental Quality.
Now Bottomley is in trouble again, for what DEQ calls in court documents “egregious violations” of the state’s water quality standards. Rock, mud and dirt had damaged three-quarters of an acre of wetlands and more than three linear miles of streams.
“The violations observed constituted some of the most extensive sedimentation damage to waters the Division of Water Resources staff involved in this matter have ever seen,” the documents read.
The brookies did catch a break. Fish biologists from the Wildlife Resources Commission routinely monitor these streams to gauge the health of the fish. On June 2, 2021, they counted just 38 brookies, a lower number than usual. Two weeks later and after heavy rain, there were only 13, the fewest number of brookies ever recorded at the monitoring station.
“At that point it removed all the doubt,” said Kin Hodges, a fish biologist with the state Wildlife Resources Commission, who helped rescue the trout. “We needed to get every single fish out of this stream or there just wasn’t going to be anything.”
Agriculture gets a pass for erosion permits
At elevations of more than 3,000 feet, much of this part of North Carolina goes dormant in the winter. The slopes are blanched in shades of sepia. Snow coats the mountains, knobs and knolls, which collide to form deep, icy pleats in the landscape.
But come spring and summer, the forests and hills will vibrate with indigo buntings, fuchsia rhododendrons and scarlet chanterelles. Brookies will hatch in the cool mountain creeks and streams, where they will spend the rest of their short lives — just three or four years.
Because brookies are small, usually no more than six inches long and two ounces in weight, people rarely eat them. Instead of serving humans, they serve the ecosystem — as food for animals and a colorful contributor to the vast and wondrous diversity of life.
Bottomley Properties began timbering in the summer of 2020. In October, the state Division of Water Resources received a complaint about sediment in the streams near Bottomley property. Inspectors subsequently saw 1 to 3 inches of dirt had filled in 500 feet of a stream that feeds Ramey Creek — classified as high quality and a trout water, as well as a water supply for communities downstream.
The next month, the division sent a Notice of Violation to Bottomley, requiring it to repair the damage and prevent more sediment from entering the streams. The company had 30 days to respond.
Thirty days passed, then 60. Nearly three months later, Bottomley had still not replied. In February 2021, state inspectors returned to the property, with company president Mitchel Bottomley present, and found the company had continued to clear large tracts of land. The company had taken few steps to repair stream damage from the sediment. The minor improvements the company did make were “actively failing,” according to court records.
“I have no doubt Ramey Creek is going to suffer significantly,” wrote Sue Homewood of the Division of Water Resources to a colleague. “It certainly just made me sad to see all those hilltops completely cleared and grubbed.”
Waterways naturally contain some sediment, churned up from their beds. But excessive amounts can harm fish, like the brookies, as well as mussels and other aquatic life, by burying their food supplies or their eggs.
The dirt can clog fishes’ gills — essentially their lungs. Other pollutants, such as toxins, fertilizers and fecal bacteria, such as from livestock manure, can hitchhike on the sediment and enter the waterways.
These environmental threats are why the state recommends that farmers leave at least a 25-foot buffer of trees and bushes next to rivers and streams. (For comparison, this is equivalent to the distance from the front of a home to the street, as required by many city zoning ordinances.)
The Bottomleys didn’t abide by the 25-foot guidelines. They weren’t required to. Agriculture and mining operations don’t have to obtain a state sedimentation and erosion permit, allowing those industries to chew up the land to the edge of a waterway.
“Our goal is to go to the legislature and change the exemption,” said Abou-Rizk of Blue Ridge NC Trout Unlimited. “We can work together and do what’s right for nature. It would be beneficial to everyone.”
February became March, and the company was still clear-cutting, still letting sediment block the waterways, court records show.
Mitchell Bottomley told the Division of Water Resources that weather had delayed installing erosion controls on much of the cleared land, according to letter dated March 10, 2021. Bottomley assured state regulators the stream repairs would be complete by April 15, weather permitting.
The comapny blew past the deadline.
In June, the rain came.
Emergency fish rescue unprecedented
In the 75-year history of the Wildlife Resources Commission, there has never been an emergency fish rescue.
“Normally when we lose brook trout, we’re not aware of it until afterward,” Hodges, the fish biologist, said. “But hundreds of acres being cleared in a manner like this – these things don’t happen in modern times. The event was so extreme we were able to respond in real time.”
In mid-June 2021, the same day they found the 13 brookies, Hodges, a colleague and biologists from the Piedmont Land Conservancy immediately donned rubber gloves and boots.
Two people waded into Ramey Creek, wearing backpacks outfitted with aluminum electrodes that would be used to electrify the water and shock the fish.
(The dose of electricity is not lethal to the fish, Hodges said, but has just enough punch to daze them and make them easier to catch.)
Two more people stood downstream, equipped with buckets and nets. Over 360 feet of the creek, everyone settled into a routine: Shock, gather. Shock, gather. It took three passes, but eventually the biologists collected 97 brookies.
Ken Bridle, stewardship director and inventory biologist with the Piedmont Land Conservancy, was a gatherer. He placed each fish in a bucket of fresh water that contained a drop of clove oil, which calmed the fish as they made the arduous journey to their new home.
From the bucket, the fish were deposited into a larger holding tank outfitted with an aerator and anchored to the back of an ATV. The biologists then drove the brookies several miles over rough roads to property owned by the Piedmont Land Conservancy.
There, at the upper end of the Fisher River was a stream that at once held brookies but had been damaged. “Over time the land healed itself, the sediment flushed out,” Hodges said. “It had everything in place except the trout themselves. It was perfect.”
North Carolina marks the southeastern edge of the brookies’ range, which extends north to Maine. But the brookies’ habitat has shrunk by nearly two-thirds. Land clearing, like what the Bottomleys did, has destroyed some of their native streams.
The brookies can’t be raised in hatcheries, and face even larger threats. Because of climate change, some streams in their southern range will eventually be too warm for them. In the southern Appalachians, including North Carolina, the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid is killing millions of acres of eastern hemlock trees. Those trees help shade the streams and rivers, keeping them cool enough for the fish to thrive.
Although brookies are not yet listed as endangered, Hodges said, the US Fish & Wildlife Service has designated them a “species of greatest conservation need,” which is just short of threatened. This classification allows agencies and nonprofits to apply for grant funding to help stabilize the population.
For all these reasons, as well as an affinity for these colorful, sensitive fish, the North Carolina biologists tried to save the brookies that had been displaced by the Bottomleys’ land clearing.
“Basically, we had to make the decision of what’s worse, let the fish remain in the stream and continue to face these impacts and possibly get wiped out — or try to rescue them and put them in a new stream where the outcome is not 100% certain that they’re going to be successful,” Hodges said. “There was always the chance we could go through all that work to rescue them, and they would die because of our rescue attempt.”
More than 20 years of violations in North Carolina and Oregon
In late June 2021, the Division of Water Resources sent a second Notice of Violation to Bottomley Properties. A recent inspection revealed “no evidence of any sedimentation and erosion control measures” or other best management practices “to prevent damage to nearby waters.”
Nor had the company corrected the problems detailed in the original Notice of Violation issued seven months prior. Mitchell Bottomley had also revoked permission for state officials to sample Ramey Creek that ran through company land.
“The extraordinary amount of sediment being discharged” from Bottomley property “was landing in some of North Carolina’s most pristine waters,” court documents read. “Trout in nearby waters would not survive the massive surge” of pollution.
Finally, in July and August, Bottomley’s environmental contractors began the repairs. In an affidavit filed with the Surry County court later that summer, Mitchell Bottomley said the company had spent $1.25 million to install erosion controls, and submitted a work plan he said would ensure the land remains stabilized.
Joey Ponzi, an attorney for the Bottomley companies, sent a letter to state regulators disputing many of their allegations. He wrote that “while we disagree with many of DEQ’s conclusions” in the Notice of Violation, “rather than contest its legal or factual bases at the this time, Bottomley has prioritized” stabilizing the site.
Some of the improvements did withstand Tropical Storm Fred, which barreled through the mountains in August 2021. However, in September, state environmental regulators inspected a portion of the property, and again discovered silt and sediment one to four inches deep, extending three-quarters of a mile along Ramey Creek.
Another 1,600 feet of stream bank along a tributary had also been damaged.
Levels of fecal coliform, apparently from livestock manure — cattle often stand in the streams and inspectors found mounds of poultry waste nearby — were also found at levels six to 12 times higher than state water quality standards in Roaring Fork Creek, upstream from the water supply for the town of Dobson.
And on a separate tract along the Little Fisher River, Bottomley Properties had cleared more land, depositing sediment in five streams from 2 inches to 18 inches deep. Four ponds and a wetland were also damaged, according to an Aug. 11 inspection report.
These types of shortcomings and temporary fixes have happened before in Bottomley-owned businesses. Since the Bottomley family started in business 26 years ago, their various enterprises have been repeatedly cited by federal and state regulators, public records show.
In 2018, the NC Department of Environmental Quality cited Bottomley Properties for sediment runoff on land where the company was building housing for migrant workers in Sparta. Two years prior, the company also failed to control runoff at its evergreen distribution facility in Sparta. Sediment not only ran into a nearby creek, but the failure of a stormwater system “created an enormous hole,” internal DEQ emails read. “It could hold two school buses.”
While the Bottomley-owned companies were benefiting from farm subsidies and disaster payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they were also facing allegations of failing to pay their workers minimum wage and overtime.
In 2014, a Bottomley subsidiary based in Oregon settled two cases with the U.S. Department of Labor for nearly $1 million — without admitting any wrongdoing. That subsidiary has since closed.
Another family company, Glade Creek Dairy in Alleghany County, racked up dozens of state environmental citations and more than $15,000 in fines, according to NC Department of Environmental Quality records.
In 2003, Mitchell Bottomley’s mother, Martha Bottomley, responded to DEQ’s notice of violations, saying heavy rain had made it a difficult farming year. Her husband, William Blan Bottomley, she wrote, “is not out to pollute our land and water. … We’ve always complied with the rules and regulations.”
At the time Martha Bottomley wrote that letter, DEQ had already found Glade Creek Dairy out of compliance at least a half dozen times.
DEQ emails show that from 2003 to 2016, Glade Creek Dairy was cited for overflowing manure pits, illegal application of the waste on land, discharges from barns into streams, and failures to pay annual permit fees.
State phone logs show that Tracy Bottomley, Mitchell’s brother, consistently failed to return phone calls to DEQ officials who were asking for evidence that the farm had designated an “Operator in Charge,” which is legally required. Company officials repeatedly postponed repairs, justifying the delays because of weather, workload or other circumstances.
William Bottomley died unexpectedly in late 2015. The family closed the dairy the next year.
Last month, Bottomley finally made progress on fixing the stream damage it had caused, state records show. However, the repairs are still incomplete, prompting the state to issue a Notice of Continuing Violation.
A contractor for the company told DEQ it plans to remove sediment and logs from a tributary this spring.
DEQ voluntarily dismissed its complaint against Bottomley in Surry County Superior Court last month. However, the agency reserved the right to refile the complaint should the company fail to adequately fix the damage.
Nonetheless, despite the level of environment harm, the agency has not fined the company, although a spokeswoman said the Division of Water Resources is reviewing the case for “potential compliance actions.”
Last fall, a Wildlife Resources Commission biologist stopped by the brookies’ new habitat, which is on Piedmont Land Conservancy property. The fish were still there, apparently thriving in water even colder than in Ramey Creek, their original home. Male brookies were showing off their breeding colors and making nesting beds. The eggs should be hatching now.
This June, biologists will return to the rescue site, hoping to see a new generation of inch-long brookies swimming in the stream.
“It was gratifying to be able to rescue them,” Hodges said. “It was really lucky that we could make everything work out as quickly as we did in time to try to save these guys.”
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