NOVA Parks staffer accidentally flushes chemicals into nearby Lake Cook

NOVA Parks staffer accidentally flushes chemicals into nearby Lake Cook
After a chlorine spill, residents are still advised not to consume fish that have been caught in Lake Cook. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

During the pandemic, Lake Cook has been a source of respite for West End resident Alexandra Petze. The artificial lake, which is regularly stocked with trout, is a boon for urban fishers and Petze said she has fond memories of holding a “kite party” for her child there.

But last week, on May 14, Lake Cook and the surrounding park were empty, after 60,000 gallons of chlorinated water from the nearby Great Waves Waterpark flooded into the lake and killed about 150 fish and several birds. The lake had recently been restocked with trout.

“When something like this happens, our neighborhood is devastated because of the disappointment,” Petze said. “… With the pandemic, it has become a gathering site. I think there’s a lot of people who would not have been able to have positive mental health without that being available to them in the last year.”

According to Petze, a neighbor’s dog walker was making her rounds past Lake Cook last week when she noticed an odd smell and oily sheen on the water. The dog walker called 911 and waited, as both the fire department and Department of Transportation and Environmental Services responded.

Shortly after, on May 14, Paul Gilbert, director of Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority which manages Great Waves and the broader Cameron Run Regional Park, said he was notified by the city that there had been a fish kill in Lake Cook.

NOVA Parks’ manager for Cameron Run and the fire marshal conducted an investigation and found that a NOVA Parks staff member had turned a valve that had not been used in nearly 15 years. The result was gallons of chlorinated getting emptied from the waterpark’s play pool and into Lake Cook over the course of nine to 12 hours, according to a city news release.

According to Gilbert, there are two filter pump systems in the waterpark, one for the wave pool and one for the shallow play pool, neither of which drains into Lake Cook. More than a decade ago, NOVA Parks installed a cartridge filter system in the play pool that is designed to never be drained.

“For both those systems, they should never discharge the water into the lake. We shouldn’t be putting chlorinated water there,” Gilbert said. “… I’m sure they didn’t realize what they were doing or where it was going because there was no need to ever drain that pool.”

“They probably were not as familiar with that system and how it’s set up. It’s an honest mistake – different pump houses work differently,” Gilbert added.

The fire marshal subsequently issued a violation to NOVA Parks, although the violation does not carry any fines, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Russell Furr.

“However, the violations called for NOVA Parks to determine how the discharge occurred and to mitigate the issue so it doesn’t happen again in the future,” Furr said in an email. “This week, the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Department of Environmental Quality and other City agencies involved are scheduled to follow up with NOVA Parks to ensure they meet these expectations.”

Since the incident occurred last week, NOVA Parks has taken some steps to ensure chemical dumps like this do not occur in the future.

“We have since made that valve inoperable so it can’t be turned on again because it never should have been,” Gilbert said.

NOVA Parks is also working to clean Lake Cook, according to Gilbert.

“Chlorination will dissipate naturally over time, so part of that happens naturally,” Gilbert said. “We have a contractor out there that is cleaning up some blue substance that came from power washing some rubberized cushions at the bottom of slides. That created a little blue residue, so they’re using a suction machine that sucks that up. … The damage is done, and it will only get better from here.”

Although NOVA Parks is taking steps to remedy the situation at Lake Cook, Petze and other West End residents argue that what happened at Cameron Run is part of a larger conversation about the future of Cameron Run and the role that NOVA Parks plays in its management.

In 2017, City Council considered, and ultimately, in 2018, passed, an extension of NOVA Parks’ lease to run the West End recreational facility. At the time, the city’s lease with the organization was set to expire in 2021 and NOVA Parks requested a 40- year extension, which would have involved adding a lazy river to Great Waves Waterpark, a dog park and $7.5 million in improvements. City staff advised against the 40-year extension, as it had when the regional park authority proposed a 20-year extension in 2016.

NOVA Parks’ original lease, which was established with the city in 1981, provided it with 53 acres, for which NOVA Parks paid $10. In 2017, that acreage was lowered to 26 acres, and the city’s most recent lease narrowed that further to 14.6 acres and gave the city authority over the nearby lake and wooded area, which is now Lake Cook. At the time, the proposal also called for NOVA Parks to pay $200,000 annually to the city.

Since 1981, NOVA Parks has constructed the waterpark, a mini golf course and batting cages – all designed around profit generation and from which the city receives no cut of the revenue.

During the discussions in 2017, the Park & Recreation Commission advised that the city should assume management of the park in 2028, when the proposed lease was set to end. The PRC and residents argued that between the lack of revenue generated for the city and its residents, the lack of off-season use and poor maintenance at the site, NOVA Parks’ operation of Cameron Run was not in the best interest of Alexandria.

City Council ended up unanimously adopting the proposed lease extension, which is set to start on July 1, 2021 and run until December 2028.

Petze, who was engaged in the public conversations around Cameron Run in 2017, said that the contamination at Lake Cook is reason enough for the city cut ties with NOVA Parks and assume control of Cameron Run.

“When I talked to my neighbors over the weekend, that was the overwhelming response: Just cut them loose,” Petze said.

If given the opportunity, Petze said Cameron Run could become a real asset for the West End community.

“We have that massive parking lot that is empty nine months of the year, and this area of the city has almost no recreation services, so what the residents want is a rec center built there,” Petze said.