State regulators have shut down a small hydroelectric plant in Alleghany County that was draining parts of Falling Spring Creek dry.

After hearing complaints from residents who live along the creek, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality began an investigation of Hydro-FS LLC, which operates a plant that takes water from the creek to generate electricity for Dominion Energy.

During an unannounced inspection in May, DEQ found the plant was temporarily withdrawing nearly 5 million gallons of water a day from the creek, exceeding state guidelines.

As a result, “portions of the creek were dry and there was mortality of aquatic life,” a consent order posted this week to DEQ’s website stated.

The plant is just downstream from Falling Spring Falls, a popular 80-foot waterfall visible from U.S. 220 between Covington and Hot Springs.

Although the falls were not impacted, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said at least 40 fish and 20 crayfish were found dead in the depleted stretch of the creek, which extended about 1,200 feet, or nearly one-quarter of a mile, beyond the plant’s intake.

Following another inspection in July, Hydro-FS agreed to stop taking water from the creek and will shut the plant down as part of an agreement reached with the state.

“I realized I was not going to win against DEQ,” company vice president and chairman Armand Thieblot said Monday.

Although the plant could resume operations if it obtains a permit, Thieblot said he has no plans to do that and will likely attempt to sell the operation.

Built around 1910, the plant diverts water from Falling Spring Creek via a side stream. The water enters two 24-inch pipes and flows about a mile downstream, descending nearly 400 feet in elevation, to a power generation house. There, the water passes through turbines that generate electricity before it is returned to the creek.

The plant has a capacity of about 500 kilowatts.

Rather than face a hefty fine from DEQ, Thieblot said he agreed to the consent order, which essentially enforces his earlier agreement to shut the plant down by installing plates on the intake pipes. The order will not become final until after DEQ takes public comments.

Comments can be submitted through Nov. 1 by email to Lee.Crowell@deq.virginia.gov or by mail to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, Va., 23219.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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