BECKLEY, W.Va. -- One West Virginia community has found a valuable new use for a low-tech tool: A dog's nose is sniffing out the source of sewage-system leaks fouling local waterways.Sable is a 7-year-old rescue dog who works for Environmental Canine Services of Vermontville, Mich.West Virginia Public Broadcasting says she was hired under a state Department of Environmental Protection grant awarded to the Piney Creek Watershed Association. The group tries to protect waterways in about 130 square miles of Raleigh County.Every time Sable barks, Beckley Sanitary Board officials know she's got a "hit" on human waste. Beth Schrayshuen says Sable shows her team where to look."The Beckley Sanitary Board has been around for 80 plus years now," she said. "And old infrastructure just needs to be repaired, but it's buried, so it's difficult to verify what needs to be repaired and what's leaking."But with Sable here as a screening tool to verify if something is leaking," she said, "we are able to focus our attentions."Jim Fedders, executive director of Environmental Canine Services, said his dogs can tackle a variety of stream-quality challenges, from acid mine drainage to septic system problems. Sable is like a mobile chemical laboratory, he said, moving on paws instead of wheels."Sometimes the sewage system itself has broken pipes that are leaking into our streams or into the storm sewer system," he said. "It can be septic tanks that when installed were probably working fine but when these septic systems get old they need to be maintained or pumped out on a fairly regular basis."
Because septic systems are out of sight, they're too often out of mind, Fedders said. People don't think to maintain them.Another problem is "straight piping," or the piping of waste directly from an older home into a back yard or stream.Sable had 17 "hits" during her visit to Beckley. Scott Reynolds, the owner of Environmental Canine Services, said that's not unusual."You guys are right along the same curve as other places that we've been," he said.Reynolds says blood samples are taken from his dogs every six months to ensure they're healthy. He also watches their paws closely.And every day's work ends with a bath.