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A hand holding two orange/black mussels with gold plates with an identifying number.
Information icon Appalachian elktoe from the Cane River. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Biologists return to pollution-plagued Cane River, making discovery

Aquatic biologists returning to Yancey County’s pollution-plagued Cane River made a surprising discovery recently – two live Appalachian elktoe mussels upstream of the town of Burnsville’s wastewater treatment plant which has been beset with problems.

This marks the first time the endangered mussel has been documented upstream of where the plant discharges into the river.

“The discovery is good news in that it highlights a trend we’ve seen in recent years of the elktoe expanding its range upstream. It also stands in stark contrast to the depressing situation downstream and the tremendous setbacks the elktoe has suffered there,” remarked John Fridell, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service).

With data from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality showing improved fecal coliform levels in the Cane River, biologists with the Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decided to enter the river to better gauge the extent of a mussel die-off that coincided with problems at the wastewater treatment plant. Since August 7th, biologists have examined eight stretches of the Cane River for signs of mussel life. In addition to finding live mussels upstream from the wastewater treatment plant, they also found live mussels at the two sites furthest downstream from the plant:

  • Immediately upstream from the Murphytown Road Bridge - five Appalachian elktoe and 16 wavy-rayed lampmussels, as well as five elktoe and 15 wavy-rayed lampmussel shells;
  • Immediately upstream from the Highway 19W bridge at Huntdale Road - one live Appalachian elktoe and five shells, one wavy-rayed lampmussel shell.

However, at the five downstream sites nearest the plant, where mussels were known to exist prior to the discharge problems, biologists failed to find any live mussels:

  • Between Lewisburg and Bent Creek - one wavy-rayed lampmussel shell;
  • The Highway 19W bridge at Silver Gap Road - one wavy-rayed lampmussel shell;
  • Immediately upstream of Whittington Road bridge - one elktoe shell;
  • Approximately ½ mile upstream of the Whittington Road bridge - 17 elktoe shells, 9 wavy-rayed lampmussel shells;
  • The Highway 19E bridge crossing - no shells.

The live mussels above the wastewater treatment plant, one adult and one juvenile, were found on a September 3rd survey that included biologists from the Service as well as The Catena Group, an environmental consulting firm. It was biologists from the Catena Group that first alerted state and federal wildlife biologists about possible water quality problems in April, when they were working in the Cane River and found dead and diseased fish, no live mussels, and several mussel shells in what should have been a healthy stretch of river. Attention turned to the town of Burnsville’s wastewater treatment plant on the Cane River whose sewage treatment abilities were compromised by toxic slugs passing through the plant.


  • John Fridell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (828) 258-3939, ext. 225
  • Steve Fraley, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, (828) 627-8414

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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