HINTON — Not everyone in this small railroad town is buzzing about the upcoming budget shortfall that will mean no more suppression treatments for black flies on the nearby rivers this fiscal year. But for the folks who do know about it, most are already itching to have Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recommend the Legislature make a special appropriation to cover those treatments through the end of June.
As a helicopter hovered over the New River near Hinton Monday, making its way north on its last suppression mission this fiscal year, Summers County residents, elected officials and business owners made it clear that clouds of biting gnats would not help the town’s or the county’s tourism-based economy.
John William “Bill” Dillon said the funding should continue and should continue every year. Dillon, who grew up in Talcott, said black flies bite.
“They eat you up,” Dillon said. “Those flies would put welts on people.”
Indeed, the tiny flies, prone to congregating in people’s ears, eyes and nostrils, do “put welts on people,” and cause itchy irritation that can last for days. Also, some folks are allergic to the insect’s venom, causing harsher reactions than just localized swelling and itching.
Dillon’s friend Roger Williams doesn’t live along the river, but has already seen black flies on his farm. Williams said barn swallows take care of the problem on his place. And unlike those bi-monthly helicopters, barn swallows are constantly on the wing consuming the adult flies.
“Barn swallows are nature’s way,” Williams said. “A lot of people don’t like them, and would rather have the flies.”
In spite of an insect pest taken care of by what some people consider an avian pest, Williams thinks the funding should continue. And he thinks the formula is just simple math; for once a lack of funding means a surplus.
“When the funding stops, you’re going to get more flies,” he said. Williams once worked in a chemical plant, and said he knows the value of those chemicals, although others are sometimes wary of their use.
“If it wasn’t for chemicals you couldn’t raise anything,” Williams said. “It helps the people, it helps tourism. (That) keeps people here, since there’s no other jobs.”
Summers County commissioners agree that the suppression should continue, not only because of the nuisance of the black flies, but because of the effect a proliferation of flies could have on tourism.
Commissioner Jack Woodrum said people who grew up around the river remember how bad the black flies could be.
“We really don’t want to go back to that,” Woodrum said. “I believe the lack of spraying is going to impact tourism and have a negative impact on those who come here to fish.”
Commission President Bill Lightner said spraying for black flies is “a wonderful thing.”
Lightner said more flies could mean fewer tourists, a “drastic effect.”
Mayor Joe Blankenship said he has written letters to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asking them all to make sure the funding for black fly suppression stays in place.
“We’ve got a problem with black flies and we need them eliminated,” the mayor said.
Blankenship also cited tourism as the certain victim of a black fly invasion.
“Other than the railroad, tourism is our livelihood,” he said.
In Hinton’s business community, Terry McIntire at Hinton New and Used Furniture said he’s never had a problem with black flies, in spite of the fact he’s lived on the river for eight years — or maybe because he’s lived there only eight years and suppression treatments have been continual during that time.
“I don’t know what the black fly issues are when they’re not spraying, but I know it’s been fine living on the river when they are spraying,” he said.
McIntire said he’d prefer to see those treatments continue because of tourism.
Pharmacist Mark Ellison at the Big Four Drug Store said the “flies are a tremendous nuisance.”
“You can’t be outside very long before you get bitten,” he said. “I hope they get the funding; we certainly do need to get the black flies sprayed.”
Standing on the deck at Kirk’s Restaurant across the New River from Hinton proper, owner Wayne Rice said summertime diners would rather sit out there than inside. But if black flies are swarming, “it can get pretty bad out here,” he said.
Black flies are a fact of life for those who live and work close to the river, but suppression spraying has helped.
“It would be good if we could get it done,” Rice said. “Black flies can be a really bad problem.”
Can be — but haven’t been since they’ve been kept under control, Rice said.
During a morning spent in Hinton talking to people about black fly suppression, the lone advocate for the fly said West Virginia has bigger problems than the little gnat.
John Clark, a veteran river guide who came to the Hinton area in the Back to the Land Movement in the 1970s, said he doesn’t like the flies, but thinks throwing caution — and Bti — to the wind could have unintended consequences.
“We got all this money we can spend to kill a bug,” Clark said. “Since we’re so poor I don’t know why we need to allocate all that money (for black fly suppression). Why don’t we take care of the water? I think our priorities are messed up.”
Hinton, Clark said, needs more than just black fly suppression. The town needs to focus on upgrading its sewage system and working on its streets.
“Let’s start with that before we start spending all that money spraying to kill a little bug,” he suggested.
Clark said Bti needs to be studied, even though proponents say the spray is organic.
“I don’t know what it kills and they don’t either,” he said.
He said nature is a balance, and that the river environment is fragile. The fishing is good, he said, because of the black flies, the bees, the bats and all the other creatures in the New River’s eco-system.
Clark suggested people wear a net and some insect repellent to combat the flies.
But even Clark knows his pro-fly stance is an unpopular one, even outside the Hinton area.
“I know golfers don’t like a black fly to get in their eyes over in Beckley,” he said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has called for a special session this month to take care of some unintended consequences in the minimum wage bill. The Department of Agriculture is asking Tomblin to put black fly suppression supplemental funding on the special session call, as well. Agriculture spokesman Butch Antolini said last week his agency is asking for $300,000 to finish out the fiscal year.
Bti — a pesticide toxic only to black fly and mosquito larvae — is generally applied every two weeks in early spring when the water is cooler, and then once a week on the Bluestone, Greenbrier and New rivers as water temperatures rise.
The department sprays more than 150 miles of rivers: the lower 12 miles of the Bluestone from Pipestem State Park to Bluestone State Park; the lower 125 miles of the Greenbrier from Clover Lick in Pocahontas County to Hinton; and a total of 21 miles of the New River — 12 miles below Bluestone Dam and 9 miles above Bluestone Lake.
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