Greased: Arby's cleans up Forest Lakes

Last week, a resident fishing at Forest Lakes noticed gunk on his gear and thought there was paint on the lake. Another resident said the lake "reeked of french fries."

And as two storm drains from Arby's empty into the lake, fingers quickly began to point toward the roast beef emporium.

Arby's owner Tom Slonaker is perplexed about what caused the grease spill, but he didn't hesitate to order a cleanup. "If it's anything we did– or even if we didn't– I'm going to make sure it's taken care of," he says.

"We think it came from Arby's," says the Department of Environmental Quality's Larry Carpenter. "You could see it. You could smell it." And the smell? "Like french fries."

Carpenter says cooking oil doesn't pose an environmental hazard because it's not toxic. And as long as Arby's cleans it up, the restaurant is unlikely to face fines or disciplinary action. "Usually the cleanup itself is quite a penalty," he says.

"It looks like some grease got away from the storm drains into the lake," observes Dave Hirschman, Albemarle County water resources manager. "They have good grease management. They were expressing a lot of willingness to correct it."

So did it smell like french fries?

"If it was french fries, it was french fries I wouldn't want to eat," replies Hirschman, who dubbed the smell "rancid."

Hirschman says errant grease is becoming a national problem when it gets into sewers and storm drains and clogs things up. "A lot of people don't realize that storm drains go into creeks or lakes," he says. [And storm drains are the subject of this week's cover story.–editor]

According to Slonaker, Arby's has an in-ground holding cell where used grease is poured. Employees add biochemicals to break the cooking oil down, and the remaining material is removed every few months.

There's also a grease holding tank on the corner of the property, but Slonaker had instructed his employees not to use it a year ago. He's seen one put grease into the full holding tank, which spilled over, but says that couldn't account for all the grease in the lake. Heavy rains are another suspect in the grease spill.

Whatever the source, Slonaker immediately called Roto-Rooter Plumbing to begin a cleanup. The cost will be significant for an already struggling business that made the news last year when Albemarle County objected to the flying of an Arby's flag in front of the restaurant. However, says Slonaker, "The dollars are not my concern. Doing the right thing is."

Slonaker says he owns property in Forest Lakes, and he's concerned about keeping the lake clean. "It's very, very upsetting to me to have this occur."

And he's a little worried about relations with his neighbors in Forest Lakes, and the fact that they called newspapers about the spill before talking to him.

"We're doing our best to be good neighbors," he reiterates. "And whether we're responsible or not, we're going to take corrective action."


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