Quality Forward gets sticky

For several years, the “No Dumping! Flows To River” curb markers meant for Asheville storm drains languished in a box at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. The oval-shaped plaques had been purchased especially for city drains back in 1997 as part of a statewide incentive to educate people about the dangers of dumping oil, paint thinner and other chemicals, says Land of Sky Environmental Programs Director Bill Eaker.

“Whatever gets dumped down [a storm drain] goes straight into our creeks and rivers,” Eaker explains. In connection with a statewide incentive, Land of Sky received a $3,000 grant from the Pigeon River Fund in 1997 to help pay for stenciling kits, which included paint, brushes, “No dumping” stencils, safety equipment and instructions. And Tom Heck — who then worked for the YMCA, coordinating an Earth Service Corps program for local teens — obtained a $5,000 grant from the Fund.

“With one exception, we had permission from every [local county and municipality] to paint storm drains with the stencil kits,” Eaker continues.

Asheville was that exception: Heck recalls that he couldn’t persuade city staff to allow the storm drains to be painted, no matter how timely the message. “[Public Works director] Mark Combs said, ‘Those [painted notices] don’t look good,’ and I said, ‘You’re right,'” Heck reveals. Undaunted, however, he researched alternatives and, eventually, sold city officials on the curb markers, which are glued to the surface of a drain (or on the concrete nearby). Heck used most of the $5,000 grant to buy hundreds of the curb markers.

Says Asheville Street Superintendent Mark Slaughter, “We didn’t want to do the paint, because it was a maintenance problem.” The stencils would wear off in a year or so and would need to be redone, he continues. The curb markers, on the other hand, can survive the ravages of traffic and weather for up to 20 years, according to Slaughter.

A few of the markers were installed in 1997 and 1998, but the project hit the back burner when Heck left the YMCA to run his own business. Outside of Asheville, however, storm-drain stenciling continued in Buncombe County, Haywood County and other areas. Typically, the work would be done by students as a community-service or environmental project, or by local civic groups. The first group to get involved in the stenciling — an environmental club from Brevard High School — caught a janitor dumping down a storm drain near where they were stenciling and gave him a quick education, Eaker recalls.

But in Asheville, storm-drain marking seemed forgotten. “Because the grant money ran out, we didn’t push [the program],” Eaker admits.

Recently, however, two of Quality Forward’s newest staffers, Gretchen Brooks and Kelly Grundham, found out about the plaques. “We heard about the project and [that] it wasn’t getting done [in Asheville]. We thought, ‘Here’s something we can do,'” says Grundham.

They fetched the box and soon set out nearly 100 markers around town. Grundham jokes, “We do them when we get sick of sitting at the computer and it’s a nice day out.” Brooks, the nonprofit’s water quality/river improvement and education coordinator, would like to do more, Grundham reports. But they’re running out of markers.

Eaker says he’d like to see the project continue, putting out a call for help from sponsors and donors. He also mentions a related effort in Kenilworth, where volunteers have installed about 100 curb markers as part of the Ross Creek Urban Watershed Project. Discouraging illegal dumping into the city’s storm-drain system will help improve water quality in the creek which originates in Chunn’s Cove, feeds Kenilworth Lake and eventually flows into the Swannanoa River, notes Eaker. He also mentions tough new stormwater-runnoff requirements, mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that Asheville and many other municipalities will be required to meet in the next few years.

“Most people don’t know that stormwater runoff isn’t treated. We’re not sure how effective [stenciling and markers] are in preventing illegal dumping, but we do hope it raises public awareness,” he says.

To learn more about the storm-drain project, or to get involved, contact Gretchen Brooks at Quality Forward (254-1776).

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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