Adding to the department's record of excellent constituent service and environmental oversight, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation official told concerned citizens in Mt. Pleasant last month that their numerous complaints about water quality could be "considered, under Homeland Security, an act of terrorism.”
This is not the first time Mt. Pleasant residents have found themselves in a contentious situation with the state's environmental regulation agency. In 2011, they fought TDEC over an aluminum dross waste landfill — the same type of site that has haunted neighbors in Camden, Tenn.
Word of the comment comes from Statewide Organizing for Community eMPowerment (SOCM), which has audio and a transcript. According to SOCM, members of the group's Maury County chapter were among the group of Mt. Pleasant residents who submitted "a record number of of TDEC’s official water quality complaint forms to the agency’s field office in Columbia in February." Several months later, they say, at a community meeting, Sherwin Smith, Deputy Director of TDEC’s Division of Water Resources, "suggested the complaints had no basis and went on to say, ' … federally, if there’s no water quality issues, that can be considered, under Homeland Security, an act of terrorism.' "
Mt. Pleasant residents view Smith’s statements as clear intimidation and an extension of the resistance and lack of concern that they have received from their local government.
“We have been meeting with officials about the outrageously expensive and dirty water in Mt. Pleasant since last year,” explained an exasperated Dwight Green, a Mt. Pleasant resident and SOCM member who attended the meeting. ”They basically told us that the proper way to approach this issue was to fill out their water quality complaint forms. So we did that and now they’re telling us that it’s an act of terrorism? That doesn’t make any sense. We filled out their form. I don’t like being intimidated or accused of being a terrorist because I demand clean drinking water.”
This episode is the latest and most dramatic example of government not working for the people. State Representative Sheila Butt, five TDEC officials including Smith, Mt. Pleasant City Commissioner Bob Shackleford, seven members of the Maury County Chapter of SOCM, and one other Mt. Pleasant resident were present at the meeting.
Where do we turn now,” asked SOCM member and Mt. Pleasant resident Joycelene Johns. “We’ve met with our state representative who is supposed to be looking out for us, attended public meetings like they asked, and they intimidate us by accusing us of committing acts of terrorism. We just want clean and affordable water. How is that terrorism?”
Barraged with questions about the incident, TDEC sent along a response late yesterday. TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart confirms that the complaints stemmed from "water quality concerns after two precautionary boil water notices — one last year and one in April this year."
"I believe one of the notices came after there was line break in the public drinking water’s distribution system and one was due to operator error," she says, before going on to address the incident further:
Our policy is that when we receive a complaint, we typically offer to come out to test the water (depending on the circumstances, type of complaint, etc.). Receiving 70 of these specifically regarding the Mt. Pleasant issue we were told more often than not — "while we have complained, we don't want you to come out and test our water." However, TDEC staff followed up with all 70 complaints and for those homes that were tested, no claims of water quality violations were identified. One of the primary complaints in the community is that the water utility bills are considered high. It should be noted that TDEC does not regulate customers’ water rates — we are in charge of making sure safe drinking water requirements are met by the public drinking water system.
Finally, in terms of the comments made by a member of the Water Resources Division at the meeting, we are just receiving the information and looking into this on our end. The department would like to fully assess what was said in the meeting. I am told that the meeting was far longer than the audio clip provided by SOCM and that Mr. Smith actually clarified his remarks. But again, we are looking into it. We are confident in the fact that TDEC staff members work very hard to address any and all complaints we receive regarding the safety of our public drinking water supplies.
We'll be looking into TDEC's "looking into it," and will keep you updated here.