The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Hellbent Profile: If you pollute the Tennessee River, Chris Irwin is coming for you

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Chris IrwinChris Irwin poses by the Tennessee River as a TVA vessel makes its way downstream. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

From the courthouse to the river, Chris Irwin strives for purity

This is the first installment of an occasional series, Hellbent, profiling citizens who work to preserve and improve the Southern Appalachian environment.

KNOXVILLE — Chris Irwin scarfed some french fries and drank a beer and told me about his plans to save the Tennessee River.

We sat at a riverside restaurant downtown between the bridges. Not even carp came up to eat a stray fry, but a mallard family hit the free starch hard.

I asked him what he saw as we looked out over the river in the still heat of late summer.

“You know what I don’t see? he said. “People swimming.” It was truth. Nobody was fishing either, in the heart of a metro area pushing a million people. Signs warning against swimming and fishing weren’t readily visible, but he said an instinctive human revulsion likely makes such warnings unnecessary.

We all know it’s an industrial drainage ditch.”

Weeks later, though, a fan of the Tennessee Volunteers rocked a back flip into the drink on national television. People pontificated on social media whether he should get a tetanus shot. Soon after that, goal posts from an historic Volunteer victory over Alabama were dumped into the river nearby. It reinforces the natural gravitation toward the Tennessee River and its role in forming an early and enduring frontier town.

Irwin envisions the river supporting full life, traditional commercial uses and recreation again, and to do it, he plans to trace and track every discharge outlet (via the National Point Discharge Elimination System database) along the upper reaches of the Tennessee, Holston and French Broad rivers to ensure applicants are complying with the law. Irwin also wants to stop the life-smothering flow of sediment from construction sites evident in the chocolate plumes observed in the river and its tributaries every time it rains. Aside from the more methodical approach to monitoring discharge sites, helped greatly with an app that matches GPS coordinates with the permits, he’ll also check out tips after rain events invariably dump dirt into area waters.

He’s well equipped to use legal means to stop the chemical and sediment flow into the Tennessee and its tributaries. Irwin was a Knox County assistant public defender for five years. “One of the reasons I became a lawyer is because I’m a treehugger,” he said, and wanted to better understand the legal applications available to support environmental conservation.

But he left the public defender’s office partly out of anger at a legal machine he described as grossly inequitable and partly to pursue his own brand of treehugger justice outside the courthouse walls.

He gestured toward the nearby city center. “Everyone at that courthouse over there is poor,“ the vast majority of whom can’t make bond, he said. “If you took all away, all the criminal laws that disproportionally affect the poor, there’d be nothing left. Our entire criminal justice system is a de facto caste system.”

He praised his fellow public defenders as “heroes,” but said he left the office with a ”profound sense of disgust at the politicians that have so f***ed up the criminal justice system.”

Now he wants to protect the rivers and creeks that keep us sated in our bodies mostly made of water. Contact him if you want to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“We’re the Saudi Arabia of clean drinking water,” he said, comparing the oil giant and referencing the overall water supplies still available across the Southern Appalachian region.

“If a terrorist group went around blowing up our … sources of drinking water, we’d call the acts the most despicable terrorist attack imaginable. But when corporations do it, it’s a-ok.”

As he catalogues the effluents from the dozens of NPDES-permitted sites just up the two rivers that join above Knoxville to form the Tennessee, via kayak or car, he plans to make his findings available in an open-source database, and wants to teach citizens how to track illegal discharges and subsequently file legal complaints. That also includes harnessing various other water-quality statutes and complaint mechanisms that Irwin will be happy to share with third parties. Most of the plumes he sees on Google Maps or is alerted to by citizens are the result of “sloppy-ass development” that is inadequately regulated.

He played by and in the river as a kid, getting sucked in by mud, but the riverbank always freed him, perhaps to allow his future endeavors to restore the river. “The biodiversity of this river is totaled.”

“My dream is to have segments of the river covered, and creeks, by people that live around them, that know how to do it. I want people to watch it and file complaints.

“I think it would recover if we stopped dumping poison in it.”

He’s compiling a long list of those dumping those poisons. 

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