While residents of the town of Spencer near Fall Creek Falls State Park await a new wastewater treatment plant that will eliminate the need for notoriously failing septic tanks there, environmentalists are waging a fierce battle to protect waterways.
The competing interests of the two constituencies involved have made things difficult for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which has earned a reputation as difficult for citizens to navigate.
Some TDEC employees in Nashville have for months now been sending internal e-mails and other memos complaining among themselves about the department’s plans to allow treated wastewater discharge to flow into a high quality creek near Fall Creek Falls. That discharge would then flow into an extensive cave system home to rare aquatic species.
And one TDEC employee, based in Cookeville, recently sent TDEC Commissioner Milton Hamilton a letter concerning speculation that the proposed $6.4 million plant ”is politically sensitive and that decisions will ultimately be based on political considerations.“ The employee went on to say that there is a ”general feeling within TDEC that technical issues must take a backseat to politics.“
Shelby Rhinehart, the influential state representative from the Spencer area, has in fact shown a particular interest in making sure the wastewater plant is built. An internal e-mail from TDEC to the governor’s office makes it clear Rhinehart intervened to try to expedite the project.
”The Commissioner and Shelby Rhinehart just spoke and agreed to hold off on the public hearing until someone asks for one,“ the e-mail said.
Environmentalists see a smoking gun there and say that explains why the public hearing they’ve been wanting since they found out about the sewage plant has never happened. The e-mail was discovered by Barry Sulkin, the Tennessee director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who recently combed TDEC files to find out more about the issue. ”This does not look good for a state agency that tries to promote itself as going the extra mile for public participation,“ says Sulkin.
In a reply to the TDEC employee who wrote him, Hamilton denied that political expediency would affect the department’s decision. And Saya Qualls, water permit manager for TDEC, says the e-mail looks a lot worse than it is.
”What totally looks kind of bad really isn’t all that bad,“ she says. ”Hearings are not mandatory or at all times necessary.“
And she says that by the time environmentalists expressed an interest in the sewage plant, the public comment period was already over. ”We have policies, procedures, and regulations, and I know that sounds like a bureaucracy, but you have to manage your work in such a way that you can get your work out the door.“ She says it would have been unusual for TDEC to schedule a public hearing after the public comment period had ended.
TDEC continues to rebuff requests for a public hearing, although concerned interests recently learned they will be able to speak on the issue after all. That’s because department officials recently have had to concede some issues in favor of the environmentalists. The permit that was scheduled to be issued about two months ago for the project has now been delayed because the department has had to acknowledge that Dry Fork Creekwhich would be receiving the sewage dischargeis of a higher quality than the department had originally recognized.
In fact, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, who are reviewing the state’s work on this project, called TDEC a few weeks ago to ask about Dry Fork’s designation. After reviewing it, TDEC upgraded the quality of the creek to what’s called a ”Tier II,“ meaning that the department can’t, on its own, issue the permit for the plant. Instead, the state’s Water Quality Control Board must issue special approval to allow degradation of the creek before the plant can be built.
According to Sulkin, the state’s about-face on the quality of the creek is ”a first.“ Still, attorneys retained on behalf of PEER and several other environmental groups balking at the project are planning to ask that the hearing be delayed, postponed, or moved to accommodate the interested public.
”While a hearing in Nashville on a Tuesday morning may be convenient for some, it does not allow for meaningful participation by working people near the project site who might want to attendsome of whom are believed to drink spring water that could be impacted by the proposed discharge.“
Meanwhile, state officials stress that failing septic systems in Spencerthe only county seat in Tennessee without a sewer systemare more important than the environmental impact of the plant. The governor’s policy aide, Justin Wilson, who is also the former commissioner of TDEC, says, ”The overriding concern is, of course, the protection of human health.“
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