News

  • Hellbenders falling off Highland Rim of Tennessee
    Ray Zimmerman
    Thursday, 15 April 2021
    downloadDr. Brian MIller
     

    MTSU researchers document hellbender's accelerating decline in Middle Tennessee

    (Author’s note: I was aware of the hellbender before interviewing Brian Miller, but did not know the giant salamanders were present on the Highland Rim of Tennessee. Subsequent reading and interviews with other researchers, including Dr. Bill Sutton at Tennessee State University, Nashville, confirm Miller’s statements that hellbenders are vanishing from large portions of Tennessee, and Missouri. The healthy populations in portions of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest may be an exception to a general trend toward extirpation and, ultimately, extinction).

    Brian Miller has been researching hellbenders for decades. He serves on the faculty of Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches in the biology department and mentors younger researchers, many of whom publish their research.

    He has even developed a digital "Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Middle Tennessee." The guide began more than 30 years ago as a dichotomous key for students in his vertebrate zoology class and now includes hundreds of photographs and exceeds 400 pages.

    Dr. Miller researches the hellbenders of the Highland Rim, the upland that surrounds Nashville and the Great Basin. Populations of hellbenders in streams of this region are perhaps Tennessee's most endangered.

    QUESTION: I noticed that you specialize in herpetofauna. Most of the research listed on your faculty page is focused on amphibians, but with some papers on snakes. Can you comment about your research?

    ANSWER: You are correct that amphibians are my primary research interest, particularly salamanders. However, I also have strong interests in reptiles, and my students and I have conducted research on various species of snakes and turtles.

    When did you become interested in hellbenders?

    Hellbenders have been of interest to me since I first encountered them while enrolled in a course on herpetology at the University of Missouri in 1977. I was fortunate that the professor of that course, Dean Metter, was involved with research on hellbenders and I began to assist with his research in 1978, in collaboration with Robert Wilkinson at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.

    Chris Petersen was working on his master's degree with Dr. Wilkinson at that time and he matriculated to the University of Missouri a couple of years later to start on his Ph.D, which was also with hellbenders. Chris and I spent time in the field gathering data for his Ph.D. project until I moved to Washington State to work on my Ph.D.

    I was hired into the biology department at Middle Tennessee State University in 1989 and began working with hellbenders in this state in 1990. At that time, I was able to locate populations in several rivers in Middle Tennessee, including a large population in the Collins River. I decided to concentrate my efforts on this population and one in the Buffalo River.

    Of note, the population I worked with in the Collins River was dominated by large adults, whereas the population in the Buffalo River consisted of many age classes, including young individuals.

    The Collins River situation was like what I was familiar with in Missouri and Arkansas populations. Unfortunately, by the early 2000s the population I was working with in the Collins River was gone; however, populations remain in the Buffalo River. My research with hellbenders during the past decade has been concentrated in streams in the Western Highland Rim.

    Do you work with both subspecies, the Ozark, and the Eastern hellbender?

    I worked with both subspecies while a student at the University of Missouri when assisting with projects in the Metter lab, but since I moved to Tennessee, I have worked only with Tennessee populations.

    What do you perceive as the greatest threats to hellbender populations?

    I am not certain why most populations of hellbenders are in decline rangewide, but suspect that habitat alteration, including sedimentation, and disease are involved in many if not all areas where declines are occurring. Lack of recruitment of young is a common theme of populations that decline. 

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  • Hard Knox Wire: Renowned white supremacist killed by accidental headshot in South Knox
    Jennifer Stambaugh
    Tuesday, 13 April 2021

    2E21131C-9E9C-405B-A93B-2D4E099C04FF.png

    Well-known Knoxville white supremacist and 'cultured thug' dies of apparent accidental gunshot wound to head 

    Originally published by Hard Knox Wire

    A Knoxville man who earned widespread notoriety as a leader in the violent white nationalist movement died last week after he was shot in the head in South Knox County.

    Craig Spaulding, age 33, was transported to the hospital from a residence near Maryville Pike about 8:14 p.m. Thursday, according to a report from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
     
    Spaulding was suffering from what appeared to be an accidental gunshot wound to the head fired from a Beretta 950 handgun, the report indicates. He later died at the University of Tennessee Medical Center and the investigation continues.
     
    Other than the fact that Spaulding left behind a wife and three children, few details of his private life are known. He was something of a celebrity in far-Right political circles and was being monitored by civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
     
    Spaulding was a self-described white nationalist, which means he was a member of a group of militant white men and women who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation.
     
    Spaulding’s first brush with notoriety came in 2015 when he allegedly shot and killed a neighbor’s dog and then claimed he was protecting his pet rabbits, according to contemporary news reports.
     
    Spaulding’s involvement in various hate groups has been extensively documented by the SPLC and Idavox, a website that publishes information about right wing organizations and their members.
     
    His last known group affiliation was with NSC-131 (the “NSC” stands for “Nationalist Social Club” while “131” is an alphanumeric code word for “anti-communist action”), a street gang that frequently travels to left-wing rallies both in and out of East Tennessee to cause mayhem in the camps of their political opponents.
     
    Spaulding would often show up as a counter protester at gay pride and anti-racist events and demonstrations. He would yell anti-gay and racist insults, sometimes using violent rhetoric that alarmed activists and led to him being escorted away from several events by police.

    Spaulding was among eight white supremacists who were arrested in the summer of 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Rogersville.
     
    In a statement published on white supremacist Telegram channels, NSC-New England and Radio Free Indiana, Craig was praised in a post attributed to Matt Parrott as a man who “lived a passionate life dedicated to his Christian faith, his beautiful family, and his Appalachian folk.”
     
    Parrot went on to say that Spaulding “embodied the ideal of the ‘cultured thug’ more than any man I’ve known; philosophically, metapolitically, and strategically—with heart.”
     
    Social media commentators on the opposite side of the political spectrum had different things to say about him.
     
    “Craig has been an openly violent neo-Nazi for years and has consistently attempted to terrorize communities around Appalachia and the Mid-west,” said Garfield But Antifascist, a Twitter user with almost 6,600 followers.
     
    “We apologize to all Craig’s non-Nazi family members, but for the sake of the wider community, his loss will not be mourned.”
     
    Local activists have expressed concerns that Spaulding’s death may prompt an influx of white nationalists into the Knoxville area for his funeral, details of which haven’t been made public.
     
    They are concerned NSC-131 members may seek out violent confrontations with minority groups or deface buildings, vehicles and statues in the the downtown area with racist graffiti, stickers and fliers.
     

    Follow the latest Knoxville crime and justice news from Hard Knox Wire.

     
    Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
     
     
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  • Ecological Society of America honors Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists for sustainability research
    Thomas Fraser
    Thursday, 08 April 2021
     

    ORNL researchers receive 2021 Sustainability Science Award for mapping human influence on U.S. river and stream changes 

    Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory mapped and quantified hydrological changes throughout the country due to urban development, energy production and other human factors and won a prestigious award for their efforts.

    The team’s analysis was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and received the 2021 Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America.

    “The Sustainability Science Award recognizes the authors of a scholarly work that make a substantial contribution to the emerging science of ecosystem and regional sustainability through the integration of ecological and social sciences. The researchers will be recognized during the society’s annual meeting in August,” according to an ORNL release announcing the award.

    The research coupled U.S. Geological Survey stream-flow records with geospatial modeling to quantify human impact on national water resources and concluded the 7 percent of affected aquatic systems hold 60 percent of North American freshwater fish, mussels and other species.

    “This work exemplifies how ORNL’s interdisciplinary research in environmental and geospatial science helps equip decision makers with the tools needed to move our nation toward a more sustainable future,” Stan Wullschleger, associate laboratory director for ORNL’s Biological and Environmental Systems Science Directorate, said in the release.

    Lead author Ryan McManamay, an aquatic ecologist and faculty member at Baylor University, was with ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division at the time of publication. Co-authors include ORNL’s Sujithkumar Surendran Nair, Christopher DeRolph, the late April Morton, Robert Stewart, Matthew Troia and Budhendra Bhaduri; Northern Arizona University’s Benjamin Ruddell; and the University of Tennessee’s Liem Tran and Hyun Kim.

    “It was a privilege to work with this team that spanned across multiple disciplines and institutions,” said Bhaduri, an ORNL Corporate Research Fellow and director of ORNL’s Geospatial Science and Human Security Division. “Given the impacts of climate change, there has never been a more pressing opportunity to address environmental sustainability. It’s a tremendous honor to make this scientific contribution and to be recognized for it.”

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  • At least $35 million headed to Smokies for southern Foothills Parkway overhauls and maintenance facilities improvements
    Thomas Fraser
    Tuesday, 06 April 2021

    grsm_terrain_features.jpgThe crest of the Smokies and its peaks are shown from Look Rock on the Foothills Parkway.  National Park Service

    Southern stretch of Foothills Parkway to get $33 million overhaul

    The National Park Service will repave and improve the entire southern stretch of Foothills Parkway and design a replacement of the outdated maintenance facilities at Sugarlands thanks to funding from the Great American Outdoors Act.

    Both projects will cost a combined $40 million and be paid for via a foundation established as part of the overall legislation passed by Congress in 2020. 

    The Department of the Interior will spend a total of $1.6 billion from the Legacy Restoration Fund this year alone as part of a long-range goal to improve infrastructure and catch up on maintenance needs in national parks and other federally managed lands, according to a release. National public lands across the country, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have long faced maintenance deficits totaling billions of dollars. 

    The Foothills Parkway and Sugarlands work is one of 165 deferred maintenance projects that will be funded this year. Infrastructure improvements are also planned for sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park.

    The $33.6 million in planned improvements to the parkway between Walland and Tallassee (from mile marker 55 to 72) will include enhanced safety features and milling and replacement of the pavement.

    “The road rehabilitation will include pullouts and parking areas, replacing steel backed timber guardrail, and repair, reconstruction and repointing of stone masonry bridge parapet walls and the walls along Look Rock Overlook,” according to interior department documents.

    “Other work will include removing and resetting stone curb, replacing/repairing of the drainage structures, stabilizing roadside ditches, overlaying or reconstructing paved waterways, stabilizing and reseeding the shoulder, installing pavement markings, replacing regulatory and NPS signs, and constructing ramps with curb cuts to provide access to interpretive panels and to meet federal accessibility guidelines.”

    “The work proposed in this project would reduce the hazards and improve safety for park visitors and employees,” according to the data sheet. 

    The Legacy Restoration Fund will also cover the $3.5 million cost of a design/build plan to improve and update the expansive and deteriorating maintenance yard at Sugarlands.

    “The buildings, driveways, and parking areas associated with the maintenance yard have not been renovated or rehabilitated in decades,” according to a data sheet.

    “There are safety hazards, inadequate space or capacity for park maintenance and operations personnel, and facilities that are entirely insufficient for essential park operations and maintenance. The condition of many buildings is so poor that replacement and disposal is likely the only practical option. This project will complete predesign project programming and budgeting and develop a Design Build RFP for the rehabilitation or replacement of facilities and associated utilities, parking, and grounds.” 

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials did not immediately respond to an email requesting additional information on possible future projects and to what extent national infrastructure plans proposed by the Biden administration might benefit the park, which is the most-visited in the nation.

    Here’s a link to the full Department of the Interior Legacy Fund release. Here are the Foothills Parkway and Sugarlands maintenance yard project data sheets.

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  • The Appalachian Voice: Critter corridors aspire to provide Safe Passage for roaming mountain wildlife
    Frances Figart
    Monday, 05 April 2021

     bears by roadBears stand by a roadside guardrail.  Bridget Donaldson, Virginia Transportation Research Council

    Safe Passage initiative calls for wildlife and human protections along mountain highways

    Hellbender Press is proud to republish this story as part of our partnership with Boone-based The Appalachian Voice.
     

    Jean Loveday is driving her husband, Tom, home from a doctor’s appointment in Johnson City, Tennessee. Their Toyota pickup truck is winding along Interstate 26, not far from the North Carolina state line north of Asheville.

    Suddenly Loveday sees something black tumbling down the mountain and out into the highway in her peripheral view. “Oh no, Tom, oh no!” she mumbles. Loveday realizes it’s a bear cub hurtling toward them. She attempts to avoid hitting it by steering into the median, but vehicle and animal seem destined to collide.

    “It all happened so fast,” she says today. “I don’t know where its mother was, whether the cub was following her or on its own. We stopped. It moved for a few minutes, and then was still. All I could think for days was, ‘I killed a bear cub!’ I hope I never, ever have to go through that again.”

    Loveday is overwhelmed with emotion as she relates this sad memory, one shared by many motorists in the Southern Appalachians.

    “I don’t care where you are on the political spectrum, no one wants to hit an animal with their vehicle,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager for National Parks Conservation Association, an organization devoted to protecting and enhancing the national parks system for future generations.

    In early 2017, Hunter convened a group of people who were concerned about the rising numbers of bear, deer and elk being hit on another highway that straddles the Tennessee–North Carolina border—Interstate 40 near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some years have seen as many as 70 road-killed bears in this curvy 28-mile section of road alone, and elk reintroduced to the park in 2001 are now crossing the highway to expand their range. 

    “Human infrastructure is making it increasingly difficult for wildlife to follow their natural patterns of movement across the landscape,” says Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner with The Wilderness Society who raised concerns back in the 1990s about I-40 being a barrier to wildlife movement. “Historically too little thought and planning has gone into wildlife needs, and our current infrastructure fails to provide for wildlife passage.”

    Passionate discussions led to action, and soon more than 80 individuals from nearly 20 federal, state, Tribal, and non-governmental organizations were collaborating to make this section of roadway more permeable for wildlife and safer for people. 

    Roadkill’s “Pernicious Twin”

    The intersection of roads and wildlife is a safety issue that is not unique to North Carolina and Tennessee. According to the Federal Highway Administration, an estimated two million large mammals are killed on roads in the United States each year, resulting in more than 26,000 human injuries and at least 200 human fatalities.

    For years, road ecologists around the world have been working to mitigate highways that were originally designed without consideration for wildlife. Europe, Canada, Mexico, and many U.S. states have already created effective wildlife road crossings. Recent articles and videos featuring large wildlife overpasses in Utah and Texas have been shared widely on social media.

    Senior Research Ecologist Marcel Huijser (pronounced ‘Houser’) with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman has contributed to road ecology studies for more than two decades. He cites three main reasons why people care about this issue: the desire for wildlife conservation, concern for human safety, and economics. “No matter who you are, where you live, or what you do for a living, you’re going to care about at least one of these,” he says.

    On November 26, 2019, The Atlantic ran an auspicious road ecology article by Ben Goldfarb titled “How Roadkill Became an Environmental Disaster.” Focusing on the giant anteaters of Brazil, whose range is—you guessed it—bisected by a huge highway, the epic, riveting story introduces readers to Evelyn the anteater and a cast of road-weary researchers. One particular Goldfarb quote became the motto for researchers assessing wildlife movement and mortality in the Pigeon River Gorge: “Collisions may be road ecology’s most obvious concern, but fragmentation is roadkill’s pernicious twin.”

    Conservationists point out the gravity of individual animals being killed on roads. But when they no longer try to cross, it can signal an even more dire situation.

    “When wildlife finally stops even trying to cross, the highway has become a barrier,” says Hunter. “The ‘barrier effect’ is not to be confused with the concrete Jersey barriers that prevent many individual crossings. When a whole population stops crossing the road, that means their habitat is now fragmented, preventing the healthy genetic exchange that species need to thrive.”

    Ron Sutherland works to restore, reconnect and re-establish wildlife corridors that have been fragmented throughout the eastern United States in his role as chief scientist with Wildlands Network, the organization that kicked off discussions about mitigation to I-40 in 2015. He defines habitat connectivity as the degree to which organisms are able to move freely across the landscape.

    “Habitat connectivity can be very high, such as in a remote and intact wilderness,” he says, “or it can be very low, such as in a city park surrounded on all sides by busy highways.”

    Sutherland points out that people often get wildlife corridors and wildlife road crossings confused.

    “A wildlife corridor is the term we use for a defined movement pathway that, if protected or restored, would provide essential habitat connectivity for one or more species,” he says. “They can be easy to see—such as a vegetated trail alongside a roadway—or nearly invisible and defined only by the movements of the animals.”

    A wildlife road crossing, on the other hand, is “a structure that is designed to allow wildlife to safely cross over or under a busy road,” he says. “So, of course it follows that one of the best places to put wildlife road crossings is where you have a wildlife corridor that gets cut off by a highway.”

    Read the rest of the story at The Appalachian Voice. 

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Earth

  • City to add new sidewalks and other measures to promote walkability on South Knoxville waterfront
    Thomas Fraser
    Wednesday, 24 March 2021

     

    suttree landing scenicSuttree Landing is among the South Knoxville waterfront locations that will be connected via an ambitious city streetscaping project.  Courtesy City of Knoxville
    Walk it out: Knoxville plans $10m in streetscape, transportation improvements along Tennessee River in SoKno

    The city announced March 24 it will soon embark on part of an ultimately $10 million project to improve walkability and pedestrian safety in the burgeoning South Knoxville waterfront community.

    The improvements aim to better connect Sevier Avenue with the waterfront, and include sidewalk construction on main neighborhood streets, better lighting and curb and drainage work near Suttree Landing Park, according to a release from the city. It's part of a long-term plan to install and improve sidewalks and bike lanes and generally make the area less dependent on automobiles. Aesthetic improvements such as the relocation of overhead utilities are also planned.

    “Connectivity and walkability on and near the South Waterfront are important,” said city Deputy Chief of Economic and Community Development Rebekah Jane Justice. “Here on Waterfront Drive, a privately-developed apartment community is planned, but these public sidewalks and other upgrades will benefit the entire community. It’s a step in the right direction toward making it easier for pedestrians to get between Suttree Landing Park and Sevier Avenue,” Justice said in a press release. 

    "In the coming few years, the city will be investing $10 million in a streetscape overhaul of Sevier Avenue – relocating unsightly overhead utility lines and adding bike lanes, improved sidewalks, street lighting, on-street parking and a new roundabout at the Sevier Avenue, Island Home Avenue and Foggy Bottom Street intersection," according to the release.

    Here's the rest of the announcement from the city: 

    "By the end of the year, new sidewalks will be constructed on sections of Waterfront Drive, Langford Avenue, Dixie Street and Empire Street – a $733,263 project that also will add new streetlights and drainage, curb and utility upgrades in the area near Suttree Landing Park on the South Waterfront. 

    Knoxville City Council last evening on March 23 authorized Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration to execute an agreement with Design and Construction Services Inc., the company submitting the lowest, most responsive bid to do the Waterfront Drive Roadway Improvements Project. 

    Work on Claude and Barber streets in the vicinity will be undertaken as funding becomes available. 

    This type of project, Justice said, is a good example of the City investing strategically to advance one of Mayor Indya Kincannon’s core priorities – building healthy and connected neighborhoods. 

    Oneof those planned private investments is South Banks, an apartment community that Dominion Group hopes to construct by next year off Waterfront Drive. 

    Connecting the Sevier Avenue commercial corridor with Suttree Landing Park by improving public infrastructure between the two points is a short-term city objective. It’s the first of much more to come."

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  • Being fire: Volunteers help preserve a classic East Tennessee cedar barren
    Thomas Fraser
    Wednesday, 17 March 2021

    BarrensA volunteer removes invasive plants from an Oak Ridge cedar barren as part of a Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning effort to keep the barren in its natural prarie state.  Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press

    Volunteers play the part of fire to maintain the native grasses and wildflowers at an Oak Ridge cedar barren

    OAK RIDGE — It’s called a barren, but it’s not barren at all. It’s actually a natural Tennessee prairie, full of intricate, interlocking natural parts, from rocks and soil to plants and insects and animals.

    There’s lots of life in these small remaining unique collections of grasses and conifers that are typically known, semi-colloquially, as cedar barrens. 

    Many of these “barrens” have been buried beneath illegal dumping or asphalt, but remnants they are still tucked away here and there, including a small barren in Oak Ridge owned by the city and recognized by the state as a small natural area.

    The seven-acre cluster of cedars, large hardwoods and small open patches of native grasses such as long stem, blue stem and Indian grass, used to be much larger. A large portion of the original barren now lies beneath medical facilities, commercial development and a community college campus in the area of Fairbanks Road and Briarcliff Avenue.

    These unique ecosystems need fire to thrive, and modern firefighting practices, road building and development have stopped this semi-regular natural cleanse of woody plants, shrubs and natural and exotic invasives, which encroach upon and can ultimately overcome the natural plants in these vanishingly rare grasslands.

    In many instances, humans have replaced fire to ensure these special places don’t disappear. 

    That’s why three dozen people showed up on a chilly but sunny Saturday in early March to strip shrubs, saplings and even larger trees from the small but classic barren adjacent to Jefferson Middle School. The goal: Help its small grassland expand and avoid terminal encroachment from incompatible vegetation.

    Cedars take well to the shallow, rocky soil that is characteristic of these communities, but the most important features of these vanishing places are native prairie grasses and accompanying rare plants and wildflowers and their associated insect and animal species.

    “We are doing what nature used to do with the occasional wildfire,” said Tim Bigelow, a board member of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, which organizes the barren weed wrangles several times a year.

    Natural and intentional low-intensity ground fires historically nurtured such landscapes, eliminating woody plants and ensuring there was enough open space and sunlight for the associated grasses and flowers to thrive in a prairie environment. 

    And yes, there are prairies in Tennessee. Historically, most of these barrens were on or near the Cumberland Plateau or along the Kentucky

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  • Park service introduces permit system to protect Whiteoak Sink wildflowers
    Thomas Fraser
    Tuesday, 09 March 2021

    Wildflower Photographer in Whiteoak Sink 04172019A visitor to Whiteoak Sink in Great Smoky Mountains National Park photographs a wildflower.  Courtesy National Park Service

    Park managers hope new rule will limit trampling of the flowers people flock to photograph. Meanwhile, there's sad news about the sink's resident bats.

    Large groups of spring visitors to the geologically and ecologically unique Whiteoak Sink area near Cades Cove will have to obtain permits in an ongoing effort to prevent damage to the sink’s plant and animal habitats.

    The sink is home to vivid wildflower displays in the spring, and the 5,000 people who come to see the annual spectacle stray off trails and destroy or damage some plant species.

    “The intent of the trial reservation system is to better protect sensitive wildflower species that can be damaged when large groups crowd around plants off-trail to take photos or closely view blooms,” according to a release from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Whiteoak Sink is off the Schoolhouse Gap Trail between Townsend and Cades Cove.

    “This trial project will allow managers to determine if better coordinating group access can reduce trampling and soil compaction around sensitive plant populations.”

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Air

  • The coal plant next door: The sad and long legacy of coal ash in Georgia
    ProPublica
    Monday, 22 March 2021

    This story from ProPublica is shared via Hellbender Press under a Creative Commons license. Click here for the entire ProPublica story, including illustrations and photos. 

    By Max Blau for Georgia Health News

    ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

    Series: Sunken Costs

    Coal Ash in Georgia

    Mark Berry raised his right hand, pledging to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The bespectacled mechanical engineer took his seat inside the cherry-wood witness stand. He pulled his microphone close to his yellow bow tie and glanced left toward five of Georgia’s most influential elected officials. As one of Georgia Power’s top environmental lobbyists, Berry had a clear mission on that rainy day in April 2019: Convince those five energy regulators that the company’s customers should foot the bill for one of the most expensive toxic waste cleanup efforts in state history.

    When Berry became Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs in 2015, he inherited responsibility for a dark corporate legacy dating back to before he was born. For many decades, power companies had burnt billions of tons of coal, dumping the leftover ash — loaded with toxic contaminants — into human-made “ponds” larger than many lakes. But after a pair of coal-ash pond disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina exposed the environmental and health risks of those largely unregulated dumps, the Obama administration required power companies to stop using the aging disposal sites.

    Berry had spent nearly two decades climbing the ranks of Southern Company, America’s second-largest energy provider and the owner of Georgia Power. By the time he was under oath that day, company execs had vowed to store newly burnt coal ash in landfills designed for safely disposing of such waste. But an unprecedented challenge remained: Figuring out what to do with 90 million tons of coal ash — enough to fill more than 50 Major League Baseball stadiums to the brim — that had accumulated over the better part of a century in ash ponds that were now leaking.

    Georgia Power would have to shut down roughly 30 ponds from the Appalachian foothills to the wetlands near the Georgia coast. After draining all the ponds, the company would have two options for disposing of the highly contaminated dry ash left behind: It could either move the ash into a landfill fitted with a protective liner, or pack the dry ash into a smaller footprint and place a cover on top — leaving a gaping hole in the ground that, in some places, would be the larger than Disneyland. The former would cost more but vastly reduce the possibility of toxic leakage; the latter lowered expenses but would perpetually risk contaminating drinking water in neighboring communities.

    As scientists had grown more aware of the threat posed by coal ash, Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina had forced utilities to move ash into lined landfills. But Georgia was something of an outlier. The state historically was known as a coal ash capital, a place where lawmakers touted their pro-business bona fides by denouncing regulations, and Georgia Power had a track record of delaying or blocking efforts to regulate pollution. The company was lobbying hard for the cheaper option.

    Of course, the $7.3 billion price tag wasn’t all that cheap. Sitting on the Georgia Public Service Commission’s witness stand, Berry and his top deputy spent hours arguing that the whopping costs of cleaning up Georgia Power’s coal-ash ponds should be passed along to its customers. If Berry could persuade the regulators that the costs were both “reasonable” and “prudent,” the company could tack a monthly fee onto the bills of 2.2 million residential customers for decades to come, which would work out to each customer footing $3,300 of the bill to clean up the company’s mess. If he failed, the commissioners could effectively force Georgia Power to eat those costs — a major blow to investors in a publicly traded company that has annual operating revenues of over $8 billion.

    During Berry’s testimony, PSC commissioner Tim Echols said he has concerns about putting ratepayers on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the ash ponds — and whether Georgia Power is spending more than it has to. “This is enormously expensive,” he said.

    Berry didn’t mention that the cleanup costs could increase by billions of dollars if Georgia’s environmental officials adopted the safer standards used by neighboring states. Anticipating Echols’ next question, Berry said that Georgia Power’s $7.3 billion plan was the “most cost-effective way” to comply with coal-ash regulations.

    “If we were to do something less,” Berry added, state environmental officials “would force us to go back and redo what we did not do right the first time.”

    Had those five energy regulators swiveling in their chairs asked more pointed questions about Georgia Power’s waste-disposal practices, Berry would have been pressured to tell a long-hidden story about ash and avarice. In the second half of the 20th century, Georgia Power had saved money by building some of America’s largest coal-ash ponds without a protective liner underneath, despite knowing some of the risks of contaminating residents’ drinking water. It had also sought to do as little as possible to protect drinking water that’s now believed to be tainted by coal-ash toxins.

    A yearlong investigation by Georgia Health News and ProPublica has revealed that Georgia Power and its parent company have spent millions of dollars on lobbying tactics to dodge billions in environmental costs. Thousands of pages of previously unpublished documents obtained by the news organizations shed new light on how Georgia Power leveraged political tensions to reduce a massive financial liability that could decimate its bottom line — and how it pushed disinformation to distance itself from patterns of sickness among people who lived near its coal-ash ponds.

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  • The days the Earth stood still (Part 1): Covid cleared the air in the lonely Smokies
    Thomas Fraser
    Saturday, 20 March 2021
    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Great Smoky Mountains National Park Air Resource Specialist is seen at the Look Rock air quality research station.   Courtesy National Park Service

    The lack of regional and local vehicle traffic during the pandemic greatly reduced measurable pollution in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

    This is your Hellbender weekend read, and the first in an occasional Hellbender Press series about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the natural world

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park shut down for six weeks in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Recorded emissions reductions during that period in part illustrate the role motor vehicles play in the park's vexing air-quality issues. The full cascade of effects from the pollution reductions are still being studied.

    Hellbender Press interviewed park air quality specialist Jim Renfro about the marked reduction of carbon dioxide and other pollutants documented during the park closure during the pandemic, and the special scientific opportunities it presents.  He responded to the following questions via email.

    Hellbender Press: You cited “several hundred tons" in pollutant reductions during an interview with WBIR of Knoxville (in 2020). What types of air pollutants does this figure include? 

    Answer: Carbon dioxide (CO2) would be most of the tons reduced from the lack of motor vehicles in the park during the park shutdown because of the pandemic.  Carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx),  volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter are other emissions that were lower, but to a much lesser extent.  

    HP: During what time frame?

    A: It was based on when the primary park roads were closed, for about a six-week period from March 24 through May 9 (2020) 

    HP: Was this based on data collected at the Look Rock air-quality monitoring station or monitoring sites throughout the park? 

    A: No, it was estimated reductions in air emissions (tons) from using the park's emissions inventory for criteria air pollutants and greenhouse gases coupled with the reduction in park visitation data for the period of the park shutdown.

    HP: Was this a result of reduced auto travel in the park? 

    A: Yes. 

    HP: A lot of emissions, of course, come from outside of the park. Was the improvement in air quality also a function of reduced pollutants coming from outside the park? 

    A: The documented reduction was with emissions, not air quality. Air quality analysis is still under way to look at changes in air pollutants. 

    HP: What do you think the primary reasons for the air quality improvements were?  

    A: If there were reductions in air pollutants (and that is still being analyzed by EPA and NPS Air Resources Division), it was due primarily to the reduction in motor vehicle emissions in and near the park (and regionally).

    HP: Did you purposefully set out to quantify the pandemic’s effect on air quality, or was this an “accidental” discovery? 

    A: We did not purposefully set out to quantify the pandemic's effect on air quality. Monitoring efforts continued during the pandemic and provided a unique and unexpected opportunity to characterize the differences in air emissions (from park closures and limited motor vehicle emissions) and air pollutants (which will take longer to look at laboratory analysis after quality assured analysis).

    Read 246 times More...

  • KUB commits to solar power – and a controversial long-term relationship with TVA
    Tracy Haun Owens
    Monday, 22 February 2021

    solar on a hillsidea7ed9a9435304bf48f15e8223272129a 

    Last year, Knoxville Utilities Board committed to supplying 20 percent of its electricity through solar generation by 2023, through Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Green Invest program. By 2023, KUB will provide 502 megawatts annually of new-to-the-grid solar power to its customers. This represents the equivalent of enough energy to power 83,000 homes. The $1.63 million cost will be paid by a credit provided by TVA as part of its 20-year partnership agreement with KUB.

    The announcement was celebrated by solar energy advocates, including the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association, but some environmental watchdogs maintain there are issues with the contracts that local power companies had to enter into with TVA to participate in Green Invest.

    For the past few years, TVA sought 20-year rolling contracts with local power companies. KUB’s previous contract with TVA was for five years. In August 2019, TVA presented the Knoxville Utilities Board with a 20-year contract that would provide a credit of 3.1 percent on wholesale base rates and flexibility to allow up to 5 percent of KUB power to come from local sources.

    Stephen Smith, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Tennessee, has served as the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) since 1993. Founded in 1985, SACE promotes responsible energy choices in the Southeast.

    (Smith is on the board of directors of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press is an independent project of FGS).

    “Any time solar is being built, that’s a positive thing,” Smith said. But, he added, “It’s important to put it into context. What has [KUB] given up by entering into what we consider a Draconian contract?”

    Read 307 times More...

Water

  • Zoo researchers raising hell(benders) in Chattanooga
    Ray Zimmerman
    Thursday, 11 March 2021

    124505910 10157221252975764 8815228407492920926 oThe Chattanooga Zoo will soon open an exhibit to hellbenders, such as the one seen here in a tank at the zoo.  Courtesy Chattanooga Zoo

    New hellbender exhibit at Chattanooga Zoo will serve as a hub for cooperative research

    Thanks to grants from two generous organizations, some oft-elusive hellbenders have a new home at the Chattanooga Zoo. The Hiwassee Education and Research Facility is nearly complete, and it features hellbender exhibits and a classroom. The exhibit includes juvenile hellbenders hatched from eggs collected from the Duck River in central Tennessee in 2015.  

    The zoo is also fabricating a stream environment exhibit that will house nine larger sub-adult hellbenders, each about 10 years old and 14.5 inches long. Visitors can observe hellbenders feeding in the completed exhibit, but it will be open only during limited hours. After the project's completion, the zoo plans to partner with researchers who hope to learn more about hellbenders. 

    "The Chattanooga Zoo is thrilled at the introduction of its new Hiwassee Hellbender Research Facility," zoo officials said in a statement to Hellbender Press. 

    “We believe that this new facility will open rare opportunities for guests to be educated on this otherwise elusive native species, and that the project would lead to important strides made in hellbender research. 

    “From all of this, our hope is for more conservation efforts made in our local waterways, also known as the eastern hellbender’s home.”

    Read 426 times More...

  • America's newest national park is wild and wonderful — and nearby
    Rick Vaughan
    Sunday, 21 February 2021
    Wide scenic winter view into the New River Gorge also shows rapids below a bend and the road and railroad tracks cut into the wooded slopes on opposite sides of the river
    The New River in West Virginia is one of the oldest rivers on earth, and it's now included in America's newest national park.  Courtesy National Park Service
     

    New River Gorge National Park preserves paddling and climbing paradise

    When you think of national parks within a day’s drive of East Tennessee, what comes to mind? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course. Or perhaps Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or Virginia’s Shenandoah. You have a new option.        

    New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, created by Congress Dec. 27, 2020, by way of a pandemic relief bill, is America’s 63rd and newest national park. Located in southern West Virginia, the 72,186-acre park and preserve protects land along both sides of a 53-mile stretch of the New River, which is famous for its world-class whitewater. It’s walls rise up to 1,400 feet, attracting rock climbers from across the country.

    The New River Gorge, known locally as “The New,” currently welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year. It’s within a day's drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, and is expecting an initial 20 percent increase in visitation this year because it is now a national park with national attention.

    Local merchants and business owners are already touting the economic benefits, including new jobs in in-store retail and dining, two industries decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

    "We're super excited about it," Cathedral Cafe manager Cassidy Bays said. She said the cafe, just minutes from the park, plans to increase staff and extend hours. "We're even building an outdoor patio to increase dining space," Bays said.

    And this is not your grandfather’s West Virginia: Locavores can find locally sourced food and lean into a vegan juice bar. Several community-supported agriculture (CSA) and co-op farms are a main source of the cafe menu. "We actually cater to locavores. We are a farm-to-table restaurant" Bays said.  

    Read 199 times More...

  • Help and hope for hellbenders ... and humans
    Rob Hunter
    Monday, 25 January 2021
    Hellbender hiding among rocks of a Smoky Mountains headwater stream, TennesseeA hellbender blends in perfectly against the rocks of a headwater stream.  Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press
     

    Hellbenders get help in face of new challenges, increasing threats

    Snot otter. Mud devil. Lasagna lizard. Allegheny alligator. For a creature with so many colorful nicknames, the hellbender is unfamiliar to many people, including millions of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Julianne Geleynse wants to change that. The resource education ranger is tasked with teaching the public about the natural wonders the park protects within its borders in hopes of mitigating damage to natural resources caused by the millions of visitors, young and old, who enter the park each year.

    With a visitor-to-ranger ratio of around 170,000 to 1, communicating with visitors is an ongoing challenge that requires unique solutions. Feeding wildlife and littering are perennial problems, but sometimes new issues emerge. Such was the case in 2017 – and again in 2020.

    In 2017, researchers in the park were alarmed to find that hellbender numbers in traditionally healthy populations had dropped. An entire generation of subadult hellbenders seemed to be missing. The most glaring sign of the problem was the presence of dead hellbenders where visitors had moved and stacked rocks in park streams. Moving rocks to create pools, dams and artfully stacked cairns may seem harmless enough when one person partakes. But when hundreds of visitors concentrate in a few miles of stream every day for months on end, the destructive impact is significant. Viral photos of especially impressive cairns can spread on social media and inspire an army of imitators.

    Why does moving rocks harm hellbenders? These giant salamanders spend most of their lives wedged beneath stones on the stream bottom. They live, hunt and breed beneath these rocks. In late summer, when temperatures still swelter and visitors indulge in their last dips of the season in park waterways, hellbenders are especially vulnerable as they begin to deposit fragile strings of eggs beneath select slabs. Simply lifting such a rock nest can cause the eggs to be swept downstream and the entire brood lost. As the researchers observed in 2017, moving and stacking stones can even directly crush the bodies of adult hellbenders.

    Read 717 times More...

Voices

  • Saving America's "Amazon" in Alabama
    Tara Lohan
    Tuesday, 13 April 2021
    Book cover Saving Americas Amazon in Alabama

     

    Alabama is home to remarkably diverse ecosystems:
    They face dire threats.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.

    It’s indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.

    All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, "Saving America's Amazon.".

    The Revelator talked with Raines about why this region is so biodiverse, why it’s been overlooked, and what efforts are being made to protect it.

    Question: What makes Alabama, and particularly the Mobile River system, so biodiverse?

    Answer: The past kind of defines the present in Alabama.

    During the ice ages, when much of the nation was frozen under these giant glaciers, Alabama wasn’t. The glaciers petered out by the time they hit Tennessee. It was much colder but things here didn’t die.

    Everything that had evolved in Alabama over successive ice ages is still here. We have a salamander, the Red Hills salamander, that branched off from all other salamander trees 50 million years ago. So this is an ancient salamander, but it’s still here because it never died out.

    The other thing you have here, in addition to not freezing, is that it’s really warm. Where I am in Mobile, we’re on the same latitude as Cairo. So the same sun that bakes the Sahara Desert is baking here.

    But we also have the rainiest climate in the United States along Alabama’s coast. It actually rains about 70 inches a year here. By comparison, Seattle gets about 55 inches. It makes for a sort of greenhouse effect where we have this intense sun and then plenty of water. Alabama has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state.

    Things just grow here.

    The pitcher plant bogs of Alabama, for example, are literally among the most diverse places on the planet. In the 1960s a scientist went out and counted every species of flowering plant in an Alabama pitcher plant bog. He came up with 63. That was the highest total found on Earth in a square meter for a decade or more.

    For a long time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was thought to be the center of oak tree diversity in the world because they have about 15 species of oaks in the confines of the park. Well, two years ago scientists working in this area called the Red Hills along the Alabama River found 20 species of oak trees on a single hillside. It’s just staggering.

    Why is Alabama’s rich biodiversity not well known or studied?

    The state was never known for being a biodiverse place until the early 2000s, when NatureServe came out with this big survey of all the states. It surprised everyone because it showed Alabama leading in aquatic diversity in all the categories — more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, mussels, snails.

    This blew everybody away because Alabama in everybody’s mind is the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the KKK, steel mills and cotton fields. But that’s not what’s in Alabama, that’s what we’ve done to Alabama since we’ve been here.

    I think part of it also has to do with being a long way from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and the great research institutions that were sending biologists all over the world. Alabama just wasn’t really studied or explored.

    Again and again, the story in Alabama is that nobody has ever looked.

    That’s one of E.O. Wilson’s big messages about Alabama. He is our most famous living scientist, I would say, or certainly biologist. He grew up here, and now in his twilight years his big mission has become trying to save Alabama. And he describes it as less explored than Borneo and says we have no idea what miracle cures and things we may find in the Mobile River system, which is what I call “America’s Amazon.”

    Read 81 times More...

  • The orphaned mayonnaise jar of Fort Sanders
    Carly Broady
    Friday, 26 March 2021

    What stories could the lonely Fort Sanders Hellmann's jar share about its weekend excesses?

    Whites addition 1886 tn1The early Fort Sanders neighborhood is shown here in the late 1800s. Many, but not all, of the architectural period homes have been demolished.  Wikipedia

    (Note from the author: This piece is about my neighborhood — Fort Sanders in Knoxville near the University of Tennessee. I wrote this for my environmental journalism class with Dr. Mark Littmann. We were tasked with writing a sketch about the world around us. I wanted to paint a picture of what I see outside every day when I walk around Fort Sanders.) 


    There’s a half-full jar of mayonnaise in the front yard.

    Its lid is gone, nowhere to be found. Next to it are a trio of Bud Light Premium glass bottles, lounging in the mud.

    Up the street are two smashed cans, three Styrofoam to-go containers, and a smattering of cardboard, all left out in the cold to weather the harsh judgement of Sunday morning.

    Every few feet more treasures appear. Cans, bottles, broken glass, clothes, needles, and old furniture. None of it looks out of place here. The green crab grass grows through the pull tabs and gray squirrels play with leftover food on the sidewalk.

    Nothing is where it should be, but it all feels right; it's an extra blanket of junk tucking the earth in for bed.

    Except for the mayonnaise jar in the yard.

    Collecting these treasures off the street feels hopeless. The moment a piece of garbage makes it into the trash bag, two more pieces appear.

    Memories of Saturday night are left out in the gutter, no one to share them with. It happens every week. Stories of a fun night with friends cast aside into the storm drain. A nice meal left out in the rain. Cigarette butts from a moment alone.

    What story does the mayonnaise in the yard have to tell?

    Read 215 times  

  • Ancient civilizations, natural resources and the rise of tree conservation
    Scott Schlarbaum
    Monday, 25 January 2021

    Color photograph shows the grassy herbaceous ground cover and the trees planted in straight rows; This walnut orchard was planted by the Tennessee Valley Authority as part of its early mission to promote the growth of economically useful trees in the Tennessee Valley.   Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program

    Part I of this three-part series examines how the development of civilizations and rapid population growth gave rise to forest tree domestication. Parts II and III will discuss the role that the University of Tennessee’s Tree Improvement Program has played in forest sustainability by contributing to the productivity and health of Tennessee’s present and future forests.

    Wood and lumber figured prominently in ancient civilizations, ranging from everyday use for warmth, cooking, and shelter to specialty uses like veneers for furniture and construction with scented woods. 

    No matter what continent or hemisphere, as human civilizations evolved from collections of nomad hunter-gatherers to the steel, brick, glass, and mortar cities of today, the impact on forested land proportionally increased. As villages became towns and, eventually, cities, forests were harvested in an ever-increasing radius around the population centers. Wild animals and plants were also harvested in the same manner, drastically altering ecosystems and causing massive erosion.

    Nations that quickly exhausted the best trees in their limited forested lands, like ancient Egypt and Greece, met wood demands for construction or specialty products by importing wood from other nations. The then-rich forests of Lebanon and Cyprus were harvested to export timber to countries suffering from a timber famine.  

    Read 133 times More...

Creature Features

  • Crazy monkey love or amorous owls?
    Rob Hunter
    Monday, 25 January 2021
    barred owlhrA barred owl peers from its winter hideaway.   Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

    February kicks off the season of love for region's barred owls

    The frosty woods may be relatively quiet today, but soon the hilltops and hollers will echo with deep, resonant voices.

    Barred owls (Strix varia) are our second-largest resident owl here in the Southeast, second only to the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).  With their fluffier plumage, doe-eyed countenance and round profiles lacking ear tufts, barred owls don’t have quite the fierce appearance of their more formidable neighbors. They’re also generally easier to observe. Often active in the daytime and fond of low perches, barred owls occasionally make themselves visible to lucky woodland wanderers. More often, though, they are heard rather than seen. Their breeding season may extend into summer, but courtship generally fires up in February and peaks in March. This is my favorite time to seek them out on the woodland slopes, usually near water, that they call home.

    Barred owls are not easy to find per se, but they definitely make themselves more conspicuous when looking for love. Their best-known call is an eight-beat hoot often verbalized as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” with the final “y’all” drawn out in a dramatically descending, tremulous wail. They sometimes give the wail alone or as crescendo following a series of ascending hoots.

    To hear any of these sounds echoing through a twilight woods can fill one with awe, but they give another vocal performance that is generally only heard when an amorous pair of owls meets up. This call, for lack of a better term, is often referred to simply as the “monkey call.”

    A caterwauling cacophony of simian sounds explodes from a dense grove of hemlocks. Have chimpanzees escaped from the local zoo? Nope, just a couple of night birds seeking romance. People who hear these calls without knowing the caller are often understandably perturbed. More than once I’ve been awakened suddenly in my tent when such a liaison takes place in a tree over my campsite, and I can say it’s a bit unsettling, even knowing the avian source.

    So when you’re walking in the woods over the next few weeks, keep an eye and an ear out for these lovebirds as they’re at their most vocal. And if you hear what sounds like a troop of monkeys hailing the setting sun, just remember that, more likely than not, you’re just hearing the music of owls in love.

    Audubon has a 2-minute podcast for you to
    'Hear the Many Different Hoots of the Barred Owl'

    Read 135 times  

Feedbag

Your daily diet of environment and science news

  • Vandals deface 1,200-year-old Cherokee and Creek rock carvings in North Georgia
     

    From the “this is why we can’t have nice things” file: Vandals violated ancient and sacred Cherokee and Creek art with scratches and paint in the Track Rock Gap area of Chattahoochee and Oconee national forests.

    “It’s one of the most significant rock art sites in the Southeastern United States and the only such site located on public land in Georgia,” according to a National Forest Service Facebook post, the NYT reported. That post was later removed by the forest service, which cited the ongoing criminal investigation.

    The rock carvings date to 800 A.D. The vandalism occurred at some point in 2020 or early this year. 

    There are at least 100 Native American petroglyphs in the north Georgia national forests. Some of the more prominent sites are fenced but allow people to view the ancient art.

    Also from the Times report:

    The Cherokee Tribal Heritage Preservation Office said in a statement that the Eastern Band of Cherokee people were “sad and frustrated” to learn of the vandalism.

    “They are special sites for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and for all people as part of the Heritage of this region,” the statement said. “Whether through ignorance or malice — the result is irreparable damage to a unique site that connects us directly to the people of the past.”


  • Developer slams brakes on proposed Oak Ridge motorsports park
     

    In a victory for local environmentalists, the developer who proposed and pushed for a motorsports park on the far western end of Oak Ridge has abandoned the project in hopes of finding a more "attractive" community.

    The park would've been located in the Horizon Center industrial park and required the development of natural areas preserved via a city agreement with the Department of Energy.

    Individuals and groups such as the Oak Ridge-based Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning said the proposal was inherently inappropriate for the site, citing the loss of diverse, mature hardwood forest, and noise pollution.


  • Babies born today may be unable to procreate without medical technology
    The Guardian: Interview of Shanna Swan. 'Most couples may have to use assisted reproduction by 2045'

    In her new book,“Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race,” Shanna H Swan, professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, provides more evidence how the wide use of plastics and other materials containing hormone-mimicking chemicals interfere with fertility and fecundity.

    She advises how one may at least reduce exposure to these substances, to some degree, by making informed purchase decisions, such as avoiding processed food.

    Knowledge particularly important for pregnant women!

    See also, the ‘Plasticenta’ report referenced in the plastic pollution action alert.


  • Health officials: Knoxville air quality on sustained upswing
    WBIR: Knoxville air quality data indicates sustained improvements

    The Knox County Health Department reports that fine particles declined by half between 2007 and 2018. Ozone levels also remained below national standards during that period. The combined pollution reductions — achieved through tighter emissions standards on power plants and vehicles — have resulted in the cleanest air in Knox County since 1999, according to the Health Department.

    Here's a link to the full 2019 Knox County Community Health Assessment.


  • Big South Fork of Cumberland River rises to highest level in 80 years
    Independent Herald: Big South Fork sets record flow and depth rates
    The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River rose to its highest level in 25 years and washed out recreation facilities and bridges in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area during pounding rains that moved over the plateau and Tennessee Valley late last week and over the weekend.
    River velocity rates rose to an astonishing 81,200 cfs over the weekend. That's a measure of how much water passes per second at a given point. The river crested at 42.5 feet.
    "Five days ago marked the 92nd anniversary of the historic March 1929 flood that caused catastrophic damage in Scott County," the news site reported.
    "On Sunday, local rivers reached their highest levels since that 1929 flood, after numerous thunderstorms dumped as much as eight inches of rain over portions of Scott and Morgan counties in a 24-hour period."

     


  • High-elevation trail plan proposed near Sylva
    WLOS: Mountain property owners wary of trail network between Sylva and Cherokee

    Proponents of a proposal to build a high-elevation 35-mile multi-use trail system in Jackson County said it could further fuel growth in the area's outdoor-recreation industry.

    Some people who already own homes and property in the area abutting, for instance, Pinnacle Park in Sylva, fear an influx of strangers who would jam roads trying to access public lands owned by Sylva and Cherokee. Shocker.

    The Nantahala Area Southern Offroad Bicycle Association is putting together a concept plan. The group says it would be the highest (3,500 feet) such trail network in the eastern United States.


  • Bradford pears suck, and a South Carolina county is offering a bounty, dead or alive
    WBIR: County bounty offered to rein in common nonnative landscaping trees

    Confession: Your friendly neighborhood Hellbender Press editor bought a house for his family that featured rows of well-established Bradford pear trees. While they are not my favorite, are distinctly alien and should be made to leave this world, they provide an effective privacy screen. I'm sure many of you are in the same boat: Why eliminate healthy trees and expose your property? Let 'em ultimately die and rot, I guess. And plant natives elsewhere. WBIR also has suggestions for natives to replace Bradford pears.

    Maybe we'll figure it out, but in the meantime here's a story about a South Carolina county offering a bounty on Bradfords.

    Interestingly, WBIR has posted numerous, unflattering stories about Bradford pears over the last couple of years. Seems they have an editorial grudge. Good. Keep rolling with it.

     

  • Opponents race to stop proposed motorsports track in Oak Ridge
    KNOX NEWS: Does a motorsports park make sense for Oak Ridge?

    A Knoxville real estate developer and some officials maintain a motorsports park at the Horizon Center industrial park would create jobs, tax revenues and a destination for private high-performance vehicle enthusiasts in the region. Opponents lament possible noise and light pollution and the loss and fragmentation of healthy, diverse hardwood forest and open space set aside decades ago by DOE as an environmental preserve. 

    The municipal approval process has moved forward since this video was made, but here is a comprehensive argument from those who oppose the Oak Ridge motorsports park and would rather preserve the popular recreational and natural site on the far west end of Oak Ridge.


  • First Native American named to lead Department of the Interior
    NYT: Interior Secretary first Native American to hold vital post

    The Senate on March 16 confirmed the first Native American director of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico.

     
    She will head the Interior Department, a sprawling yet vitally important bureaucracy that oversees government management of federal land, including the National Park Service, which oversees Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Indian lands such as those occupied by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and a vast federal collection of the best of the rest of America from coast to coast.
     
    That's just a sample of the upcoming responsibilities faced by Haaland, who was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.
     
    Here's some of the story from the New York Times:
     

    ".. her new position is particularly redolent of history because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people.

    "Beyond the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, it oversees about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters off the United States coastline, a huge system of dams and reservoirs across the Western United States and the protection of thousands of endangered species."


  • Tennessee journalists wary of amendments to public meeting laws
    ETSPJ: Hold up on Covid-era meeting law changes to ensure public accommodation

    Hellbender Press takes a fundamentalist attitude when it comes to the First Amendment and unimpeded public access to information from the government and its decision-making processes. The East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists released a statement March 12 regarding public access problems with an otherwise reasonable amendment to the state open-meetings laws. The amendments were introduced at the request of the Knox County Commission, according to ETSPJ. 

    Here is the press release from ETSPJ in its entirety:

    "The East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists opposes a bill sponsored by two Knoxville lawmakers, Rep. David Wright and Sen. Richard Briggs, that would create yet another exemption to the state Open Meetings Act.

    The bill, apparently introduced at the request of the Knox County Commission, would allow almost half the members of a county legislative body to participate in meetings by telephone or other electronic means. For Knox County, this would mean four of the nine commissioners; for Davidson Metro Council with 40 members, 19 of them could conceivably participate by telephone.

    The rationale for the bill is laudable in that so long as a quorum is physically present in a single location, it permits an otherwise absent member to attend and represent constituents. Acceptable reasons for absence are family or medical emergencies, military service or out-of- the-county work.

    Its shortcoming, however, is the total lack of public accommodation. As currently drafted, this bill would be an exception to a section of Tennessee law that permits such electronic participation so long as all conversation is audible to the public, each member can simultaneously hear and speak to each other during the meeting and all votes are taken by roll call."

    The requirements in the existing Tennessee law are similar to those in the governor’s emergency executive order for public meetings during the pandemic, but the Briggs-Wright bill would incorporate the convenience of the pandemic order for government officials without any of the public safeguards.

    Tennessee school boards received an exemption in 2012 for electronic participation, but whether by happenstance or by local rule, the Knox County School Board has never had more than one member participate electronically at the same time. So, the public has not faced the obstacle of determining who is speaking or how members participating by telephone voted.

    The exemption to existing law for school boards may have begun a slippery slope for multiple state governing bodies to carve out a permanent exemption in the state Open Meetings Act.

    ETSPJ asks that lawmakers Briggs and Wright withdraw their bill or else amend it so that it incorporates public accommodations similar to those in the existing state law and the governor’s executive order for meetings during the pandemic.

     

  • Indigenous people could provide a path to global land and water preservation
    NYT:  Global effort under way to protect 30 percent of the world's remaining natural areas

    The "30x30" plan, led by Britain, Costa Rica and France, aims to preserve at least 30 percent of the Earth's remaining natural terrestrial and aquatic habitats. A convention of dozens of nations in China later this year will outline and streamline possible methods to meet this goal. Some countries want to increase the goal to 50 percent.

     One good reference point may be the lands controlled by indigenous people, who, research shows, do a remarkably good job of maintaining biodiversity in the native habitats in which they live. Their careful methods of resource extraction provide economic benefits while preserving the natural integrity of their native lands.

    The U.S. is the only country aside from the Vatican to not agree to the convention's goal, though President Joe Biden has floated a similar plan to preserve 30 percent of the country's remaining natural areas.


  • NC authorities mulling relaxed regulations on Pigeon River pollutants
    Knox News: Sam Venable: Now is not the time to backslide on Pigeon River health

    Good piece here on a renewed threat to the Pigeon River, which threads from North Carolina into Tennessee. Your friendly neighborhood Hellbender Press editor was a raft guide there for a while — people loved to be on that river, and it is a true environmental and economic success story.

    But after years of environmental improvements to the river and accompanying economic gains, the state of North Carolina is considering relaxing standards for a nearby paper mill's pollutants.

    The river is much healthier than it was some 25 years ago, when what was then Champion Paper regularly polluted the river with a toxic mess that included dioxins. An area of Cocke County along the river is forever known as "Widowville."

    The state is considering loosening the discharge standards for the paper mill's current owner. A public hearing on the matter is set for April 14.


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About

  • Hellbender Press

    The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

    (ONLINE version 0.7)
    Copyright © 2021 Hellbender Press | Foundation for Global Sustainability
     
    Hellbender Press
    P.O. Box 1101
    Knoxville, Tennessee
    37901-1101
    865-465-9691
    This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
     
    Editor and Publisher
    Thomas Fraser
     
    Staff Writers
    Thomas Fraser
    Robert Hunter
    Tracy Haun Owens
    Lesli Bales-Sherrod
    Rick Vaughan
    Rikki Hall (Posthumous Emeritus)
     
    Contributing Writers
    Stephen Lyn Bales
    Chris Kane
    Scott Schlarbaum
    Leslie Bateman Wylie
    Ray Zimmerman
     
    Editorial Board
    Bo Baxter
    Jason Bradley
    Kim Pilarski-Hall
    Robert Hunter
    Chris Kane
    Wolf Naegeli
    Lauren Parker
    Amanda Womac
     

    Hellbender Press: The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia is a digital environmental news service with a focus on the Southern Appalachian bioregion. It aggregates relevant stories from across the news media space and provides original news, features and commentary.

    Espousing the “Think Globally, Act Locally” ethos of FGS, Hellbender Press promotes the conservation and study of the environment and protections for air, water, climate, natural areas, and other resources that are critical to human health and a robust, resilient economy.

    The Hellbender also champions civil and human rights, especially in matters of environmental justice, equity of access to natural resources and the right to a clean environment.

    Hellbender Press is a self-organizing project of the Foundation for Global Sustainability's Living Sustainably Program. All donations made for Hellbender Press to FGS are tax-deductible. We offer a free environmental news and information site, but grants and charitable contributions are encouraged and needed to support our work. Much of the content is provided on a volunteer basis by individuals and organizations that share a common cause.

    Hellbender Press encourages the submission of original and relevant articles and photography for consideration to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


  • Our Name

    The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), a native salamander, is an indicator species. It requires clear, oxygen-rich water to respire, find its prey, and reproduce.

    The presence of hellbenders in a stream is indicative of high water quality and an intact ecosystem.

    Hellbender Press aspires to help you discover the degrees of resilience and sustainability of your community, our bioregion, and planet Earth.

    Hellbender Press informs about what is beneficial for life — here and elsewhere.

    It also points out where we must do better to save what may still be savable.


  • Foundation for Global Sustainability

    FGS is a multidisciplinary, non-profit advocacy organization. It monitors and addresses social and environmental issues in the Upper Tennessee Valley and the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

    FGS works to restore the balance between human activities and the natural life support systems of the Earth. Events, publications, special reports, and outreach by FGS inform and educate the public about vital regional and global issues and how they interdepend.

    FGS fosters and supports conservation initiatives, including action committees that address egregious assaults on our natural heritage, for example, which require temporary assistance only; campaigns by other nonprofits, such as

    as well as groups that want to address systemic problems in a systematic fashion. Among the latter, three evolved to establish themselves as independent 501(c)(3) organization: