The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Infrastructure funding to cover South Knoxville Superfund site cleanup

Written by

Smokey Mountain Smelters siteAerial view (ca. 2002) of Smokey Mountain Smelters Superfund site, located between two rail lines. At left is the overpass of Maryville Pike, at right a section of Knox County Development Corporation’s Montgomery Village Apartments. The large smelter hall and a few of the apartment buildings have since been removed.  Image from TN Dept. of Health

Knoxville’s most polluted former industrial site is slated for a massive cleanup soon thanks to funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress recently passed. The Smokey Mountain Smelters site in Vestal has spent more than a decade on the National Priorities List, commonly called the “Superfund” list, of the most contaminated properties in the U.S. 

The work could start within just a few months, said Rusty Kestle, Environmental Protection Agency project manager for the site. He said it’s the top priority in the Southeast for the infrastructure funding because it’s among the most affordable and ready for action.

IMG 9536A sign warns against entry to the Smokey Mountain Smelters Superfund site off Maryville Pike in the Vestal community of Knoxville.                                    S. Heather Duncan/Hellbender Press

Starting a century ago, the 13-acre property on Maryville Pike was home to a series of fertilizer and agricultural chemical companies. Smokey Mountain Smelters, also called Rotary Furnace Inc., melted scrap aluminum and cast it into ingots there between 1979 and 1994. When the company shut down, huge exposed piles of waste products remained on the ground and in a tributary of Flenniken Branch.

The runoff contaminated the creek that flows through nearby I.C. King Park and eventually drains to the Tennessee River, a drinking water source and recreation destination.

Smokey Mountain Smelters locationSmokey Mountain Smelters location. Flenniken Branch, not shown on this map, flows along the north-western rail line that is show in faint grey. Gap Creek, however, the larger stream joining the river at I.C King Park is indicated in blue.

Sedimentation from another disturbed piece of land in South Knoxville has already threatened to smother the beleaguered creek, according to the state, as referenced in a Hellbender Press report last year.

The EPA added Smokey Mountain Smelters to the Superfund list in 2010. Surface water, ground water, soil and air samples at the site showed elevated levels of various heavy metals such as arsenic and lead as well as ammonia, chlorides, and chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), all of which can harm human health. 

Residents of the adjacent Montgomery Village public housing complex often took shortcuts across the property, and homeless people had been in the buildings. So EPA conducted a “short-term” cleanup to eliminate surface contamination and the immediate risk to the public. It demolished the collapsing buildings and removed debris. The rest of the waste was covered temporarily under a clay cap. But sporadic tests showed pollutants still seeping into the groundwater.

In 2015, the agency decided on a plan for more complete cleanup, projected to cost $3.7 million. Before proceeding, the EPA tried to pursue those who made the mess. 

“We haven’t been doing nothing,” Kestle said. “We’ve been trying to get the responsible parties to pay for the cleanup.”

Smokey Mountain Smelters owner Daniel Johnson had died, however, and his heirs excluded the property in the estate they inherited, Kestle said. “That’s how it became an orphan site.”

EPA and U.S. Department of Justice lawyers have since concluded that because of the array of industrial activities on the property over the past century, it would be hard to hold any single owner or former operator liable, Kestle said. 

That leaves taxpayers footing the cleanup bill. But it’s expected to be among the easiest and cheapest to finish in the Southeast, Kestle said. “We did a pretty good job on the initial response work,” he said. “That’s why this was relatively low priority until the money came along for infrastructure improvement.”

Rejecting more expensive options that would have included extensive soil removal, the EPA plans to install a higher-quality cover system with a gas collection layer, a geosynthetic clay liner, a high-density plastic drainage liner, 18 inches of protective soil and another six inches of topsoil. Water treatment chemicals will also be injected into the water table, which will be monitored using wells.

Reviews will be conducted every five years to evaluate whether the treatment is effective at protecting human health and the environment, the plan states.

The new cap will take a year or less to construct, Kestle said. The groundwater treatment will take longer, although it can continue without delaying redevelopment.

The buried waste includes “salt cake,” which is highly corrosive and dissolves easily in water. The contaminants it contains can  filter through porous underground limestone to the ground-water table, which is as shallow as 35 feet, according to federal documents by EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Surrounding residents have access to public drinking water. 

Although surface water contamination is unlikely to have persisted, it hasn’t been monitored to find out for sure, Kestle said. (He noted that there are already posted warnings against eating fish caught at I.C. King Park or from the Tennessee River, because of pollution unrelated to Smokey Mountain Smelters.) The 2015 EPA assessment concluded that the former industrial property posed no substantial harm to the surrounding environment. 

Kestle said some contamination could remain in the creek sediment, but metals break down over time. “We’re still concerned about it and want to make sure no more contamination leaves the site,” he said.

“But as far as digging up the creek to remove it, that would probably cause more damage than good.” 

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News

Related items

  • Enviros to TVA: Retire the fossil-fuel pacifier
    in News

    Cumberland FPTVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville is the subject of a suit filed by environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center.  Tennessee Valley Authority

    SELC, others file suit in hopes of dissuading TVA from future fossil options

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CLARKSVILLE — On behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked TVA to prepare a supplemental environmental statement to address concerns with TVA’s draft environmental impact statement, which details the agency’s plans to retire the Cumberland Fossil Plant.

    The Cumberland Fossil Plant, about 22 miles southwest of Clarksville, is TVA’s largest coal-fired power station and was built between 1968 and 1973. TVA plans to retire each unit of the two-unit, coal-fired steam-generation plant separately: one unit no later than 2030, and the second unit no later than 2033. But the plant will need to be replaced, and TVA is currently considering three alternatives to fossil fuel, including natural gas and solar energy, according to its draft EIS.

    (Tennessee Valley Authority already plans to close down the Knoxville-area Bull Run fossil plant in Claxton next year).

  • U.S. Supreme Court’s recent clean-air ruling renews spotlight on fossil-energy producers like TVA
    in News

    TVA 4 Cumberland FP

    Supreme Court air-pollution ruling calls into stark context all that must be done

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE — The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change has renewed the spotlight on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility and Tennessee’s primary source of electricity.

    The case involved EPA efforts to implement a key provision of the Clean Air Act in a challenge brought by 15 Republican-led states. That provision, which never went into effect, would have required existing power plants to shift from dirty sources of energy — such as coal — to cleaner sources, including solar and wind, as part of an urgent effort to reduce global warming.

  • Court finds TVA contractor potentially liable for Kingston coal-ash cleanup injuries and deaths

    coalash tvaspill dotgriffithOn Dec. 23, 2008, a massive dam at the Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tenn., ruptured and spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash into the Clinch and Emory rivers. Appalachian Voices teamed up with Southwings to take pictures from the air and launched two separate missions by water to test the river and fish for pollutants as a result of the spill.  Appalachian Voices

    Contractor that cleaned up infamous TVA ash spill not immune from responsibility for alleged unsafe worksite

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CINCINNATI — A federal appellate court last week struck down a last-ditch appeal by a Tennessee Valley Authority contractor accused in the mass poisoning by radioactive coal ash waste of the utility’s Kingston disaster workforce.

    The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Jacobs Engineering Inc. cannot ride the coattails of TVA governmental immunity because TVA itself would not have been immune from liability had sickened workers chosen to sue the utility.

  • After cleanup, what’s the future of the South Knoxville Superfund site?
    in News

    IMG 9550The Montgomery Village public housing complex in South Knoxville is separated only by railroad tracks from the Smoky Mountain Smelters Superfund site (and the Witherspoon dump site).  S. Heather Duncan/Hellbender Press

    A better use of the SMS/Witherspoon properties in Vestal may be constrained by toxic legacy and uncertain ownership

    An imminent cleanup of a Superfund site in Vestal could pave the way for redevelopment and new life for the highly polluted property. But its future is complicated by muddy ownership and contradictory visions for its use.

    The Smoky Mountain Smelters company left behind soil, groundwater and surface water pollution when it shuttered in 1994. But federal infrastructure funding is now slated to finish off a cleanup begun by the federal Environmental Agency at the Maryville Pike tract. Groundwater contamination below the surface is the most significant remaining problem. 

  • EPA to announce stricter regulations on HFC emissions

    NYT: EPA plans stricter regulation of HFC emissions

    Hydrofluorocarbons were used on an industrial scale to replace ozone layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, cooling and other applications, but they turned out to be a powerful driver of climate change. Scientists estimate HFCs are 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of their cimate-change role.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists continue research into zero-emission refrigerant technologies

    According to Times reporting: “In proposing a new regulation, Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said the agency aimed to reduce the production and importation of hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in refrigeration and air-conditioning, in the United States by 85 percent over the next 15 years.”

  • The coal plant next door: The sad and long legacy of coal ash in Georgia
    in Air

    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 CostsCoal 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.

  • The days the Earth stood still (Part 1): Covid cleared the air in the lonely Smokies
    in Air
    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGreat 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? 

  • Chickamauga Lake cleanup

    Mar 6  9 a.m.–1 p.m. EST

    Cleanup at Chickamauga Lake of the Tennessee River
    Possum's Creek, Harrison Bay State Park
    Keep the TN River Beautiful with Chickamauga Fly, Bait, & Casting Club

    Hands-on volunteer activity

    Keep the TN River Beautiful coordinates with TVA, Keep TN Beautiful, TDOT, Keep America Beautiful, and Yamaha Rightwaters

    For more information, call (865) 386-3926 or email  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.