Fighting the uphill struggle
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When an agent for Tennessee's Department of Pollution Control-Mining, a division of TDEC (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation) lifted his gaze up to the citizens sitting before him and said, "it gives me no great pleasure to inform you this will more than likely destroy a corner of your community," I felt something well up within me that seemed inappropriate at the time; Hope.
Being a self-avowed environmentalist in Johnson County, TN is an emotional roller-coaster ride. Victories are few and hard-won. Many 'old timers' don't know what to make of me. Friends are not the ones met in school or church, but the battle-tried warriors who show up for meetings every month, just like I do. We know the cards are stacked against us; the Tennessee legislature is pretty well locked up by the Farm Bureau who lust after agri-corporate opportunities like CAFOs. State agencies are business-friendly who make mention of public resources in their mission statements but punch in every day to issue permits to industries that would harm our air and water for profit. Well-meaning field agents for TDEC are weighed down by obstacles only a perverse bureaucracy could impose. We all knew the uphill struggle when we gathered at the community building that night to hear and challenge the social and economical justification of having an asphalt plant operate on the banks of Doe Creek, a Tier 2 trout stream in our county. Then the agent said something else that fed the flames of hope, "the terms of the mining permits that we issue today were drafted in 1968 and revised only once, nearly 35 years ago." Hmm... why was he feeding us these tidbits? Could he also see what most in that room deemed obvious; that Johnson County truly is unique? The headwaters of the Watauga Watershed begin their journey through TVA's massive dam and reservoir system here. Water, clean as God means it to be, flows out of our hills filling one of the cleanest bodies of water in the United States, Watauga Lake.
There is no asphalt shortage in Johnson County. The stone quarry this family-owned business also runs on site has been repeatedly sent NOVs (Notice of Violation) for exceeding the particulate amounts in their run-off to Doe Creek. All of my friends share a confidence that such a carelessness and disregard would be also be applied to their making of asphalt. Having petroleum by-products wash down pristine Doe Creek to Watauga Lake conjures up a nightmarish vision that drives our resolve; we must not allow the asphalt plant to be permitted. Did I mention the asphalt plant is in a flood plain?
During the 30 day period for public appeal, we passed out petitions, began fund-raisers, solicited legal advise and wrote letters to TDEC in hopes the permit would be denied. Phone conversations between me and the state agents in the Department of Mining seemed friendly and informative. "Big Money" in Johnson County wrote letters. The Sierra Club chimed in too. Even TWRA (TN Wildlife Resource Agency) wrote a letter expressing their worry that trout could suffer from the operation of an asphalt plant on a Tier 2 stream. It was a united front against the permit. Even though only one asphalt permit had ever been denied in the history of the state, citizens confidently spoke of history being made again in the name of clean water. Around Thanksgiving, TDEC issued their decision: permit granted with modifications suggested in the storm water controls, but not mandated. Hope had taken one in the gut. We were down, but not out.
Our local group, the Watauga Watershed Alliance, brought suit against the EPA for allowing TN to permit a dairy CAFO in Johnson County. We wrote resolutions against "abnormal agriculture" and submitted them to our county commissioners. They adopted them and months later abandoned them. Our members went to Nashville to speak to the assistant Attorney General and Secretary of Agriculture. Copies of letters sent to state officials were also sent to newspapers and Governor Bredesen. We went on the radio. I was interviewed by the local TV station on my front lawn with a NO CAFO sign behind me. We took turns writing letters to the editor. While we raised our kids, went to work and tended to our gardens, we were always fighting the CAFO permit. We were dealt a blow when Judge Campbell, from the middle district federal court of TN, dismissed our suit against the EPA. Still, the pressure against the CAFO stayed at a fever pitch until everyone heard the news: the dairyman's wife had been murdered and her husband, Jerry Anderson, was arrested for the crime. The partnership for the CAFO crumbled and the work for the project stopped. From the air, one can clearly see the scar left by the foolish dream of a greedy man. Nearly $100,000 dollars were raised in the fight of the CAFO; money, time and sweat that could have been better spent in one of TN's poorest counties. And now another fight boils. Our new attorneys encourage us to appeal the asphalt permit on it's lack of merit. They feel a properly constructed argument will sway the TN Board of Water Quality to demand a rewrite of the permit; perhaps even call for it's dismissal.
The asphalt plant is already built. It stands waiting for the go-ahead from the state. I'm sure the family that owns it has absolute confidence in the state's compliance to their demands. Perhaps the owners, already sited for dozens of violations to Doe Creek but never fined by the state, feel untouchable. Attracted to TN by our lax environmental laws and weak enforcement, they moved here to make money. Not to contribute to our county or make friends, but to make money. They certainly have everything on their side to 'loot and pollute.' And still, completely inappropriate in the face of certain defeat, I feel something well up within me. I look in my friend's eyes; they feel it too.
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