SUTTON, W.Va. -- Social media reports to the contrary, Sutton Lake is neither closed to boaters and swimmers nor the host medium for a strain of flesh-eating bacteria that has claimed two lives.
False rumors that followed the appearance of a blue-green algae bloom on June 21 have cost Sutton Lake Marina owner Bill Hunt at least $40,000 in cancelled boat reservation fees alone.
"I don't know how you ever get that back," Hunt said, standing outside the entrance to his marina's store and restaurant. "Here it is, a beautiful Friday morning, and every one of our rental boats is here at the dock, not being used."
"I'll bet we've answered 100 calls a day from people asking if it's true the lake is closed," said Melinda Frank, the marina's general manager. "It's never closed. People have been swimming and boating, and everyone's fine. But people have been reading on Facebook that we're closed, that there's flesh-eating bacteria here, and that two people have died from it."
As a result, many potential Sutton Lake users have chosen to go elsewhere.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see a social media report that it's all caused by alien space poop landing in Sutton Lake," Hunt said.
To be clear, there are no flesh-eating bacteria at Sutton Lake, there have been no deaths here, and no one has been sickened by coming in contact with blooms of blue-green algae that have, in fact, been spotted here during the past week. The lake has not been closed.
Business at the lake began turning from usual to unusual on June 21, when a member of the public spotted what was initially thought to be a gasoline slick coating the surface of the small, roped-off swimming area at South Abutment Beach, located in the shadow of the Sutton Dam. After initially reporting the anomaly to Frank, the caller was referred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' resource manager's office at the dam.
When corps personnel investigated the report, they compared what they saw at South Abutment Beach to photos that had been forwarded to them earlier in the year, depicting blue-green algae blooms that had been raising health concerns at corps-managed reservoirs in Ohio.
"They seemed to match," said Sutton Lake Resource Manager Keith Ann Nuckles, "so we took some water samples and called Steve Foster," a limnologist, or freshwater biologist, at the corps' district headquarters in Huntington.
In strong-enough concentrations, blue-green algae blooms are capable of producing toxins that can be harmful to humans, particularly small children. Adverse effects of exposure to the toxins range from rashes and hay fever-like symptoms to vomiting and diarrhea
"Steve was concerned enough to meet us in Charleston that night to take the samples back to Huntington for processing and analysis," Nuckles said.
Foster was able to quickly identify the scummy algae from South Abutment Beach as being from the Anabaena, or potentially toxin-producing blue-green strain.
"I could tell right away it exceeded our thresholds, and could pose a hazard to people and pets," Foster said.
While the World Health Organization considers 100,000 cells per milliliter concentrations of blue-green algae to be potentially dangerous to humans, the concentration found at South Abutment Beach was determined to be 1.2 million cells per milliliter.
Nuckles and her staff closed the swimming area at South Abutment Beach the night of June 21 and began posting caution posters at all entrances to the lake, warning visitors to avoid drinking from the lake and discouraging them from swimming and water skiing while the blooms were present.
Corps of Engineers personnel sampled the lake water again Monday and Tuesday, and searched for additional blue-green algae blooms.