The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Construction trade groups support Tennessee water-protection rollbacks as TDEC staffers push back against reduced sediment controls

Written by Anita Wadhwani

2306channelGrading along Maryville Pike in Knoxville pumped sediment into a nearby stream and on to the Tennessee River. The owner of the property was cited for violating state water-quality laws. Courtesy Knoxville Stormwater Management

Tennessee Homebuilders Association and Tennessee Chamber of Commerce support reduced site inspections

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

Cindy Whitt and Judy Alexander, neighbors in the Westhaven subdivision in Williamson County for nearly 15 years, have watched their development grow from a small new-build subdivision of 500 homes to now more than 2,500.

In that time, on their regular walks together, they’ve also witnessed the results of dwindling green space as construction has surged:

“Almost everything from the construction runs through our storm sewer,” said Alexander. “Even though the developers put up fences (designed to prevent silt from escaping) all you need is a really steady rain — it doesn’t have to be heavy — and it all flows into our the Harpeth and the West Harpeth.”

The pair have contacted the Corps of Engineers, the city of Franklin and the state department of environment and conservation, but despite inspections, overflow ponds and new fencing, the problem persists.

“It blows my mind if we can’t even enforce the rules in wealthy Williamson County,” said Whitt, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970’s.

The women are now among more than 100 Tennessee residents who have voiced their opposition in public meetings and in written comments to proposed revisions to the permitting process for construction companies that Whitt fears will make the problems worse.

The proposed change by the state’s environmental regulators would roll back longstanding regulation for construction site runoff — rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off site and into nearby waterways, often creating deposits of silt that impact water quality and aquatic life.

In an unusual move, a division within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation  — the Division of Natural Areas — has weighed in to take issue with the permit change.
 
“We believe that sites assessments remain a key tool in understanding the character of a site and can provide documentation of ecological resources prior to commencement of construction,”  a staff member in the Division of Water Resources wrote to colleagues at TDEC.
 

Silt has historically been among the biggest pollutants in Tennessee’s creeks and streams, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which nevertheless proposed the changes. Currently construction sites are prohibited from disturbing 50 acres of property at one time without a special stormwater permit, a process that entails public notice and the opportunity for comment. The proposed new revisions would eliminate that permit requirement.

Construction site disturbances currently require twice-weekly stormwater monitoring inspections. The proposed permit revisions would keep twice-weekly inspections at sites involving 50 or more acres, but reduced required inspections to once per week for smaller sites.

The new rules are being championed by the Tennessee Homebuilder Association and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who have pointed out that part of the change would revert Tennessee’s inspection standards to federal standards, which require only once-per-week inspections of construction sites.

“The Chamber appreciates and is supportive of the changes proposed in the revised (permit proposal) for discharges of stormwater for construction related activities,” said Mallorie Kerby, associate vice president for environment and energy with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Tennessee Manufacturing Association.

“The Chamber agrees that the site inspection frequency should be revised to not exceed the federal minimum requirement,” Kerby said.

In an unusual move, a separate division within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation  — the Division of Natural Areas — has weighed in to take issue with the permit change.

The Division of Natural Areas assists in providing on advice on proper management of plants and animals on Tennessee’s protected lands and private properties. Scientists within the division are often called upon to provide expertise on these potential impacts during the existing permitting process.

“For the most part we, like (the Division of Water Resources) see siltation as the primary threat to the maintenance of sustainable populations of target organisms, including fish, crayfish, snails, mussels, insects, and amphibians,” a letter from Roger McCoy to his colleagues at TDEC about the permitting changes being proposed said.

“We believe that sites assessments remain a key tool in understanding the character of a site and can provide documentation of ecological resources prior to commencement of construction,” he wrote.

Environmental groups have also lined up to oppose the permitting process change, including the Tennessee Environmental Council, the Obed Watershed Community Association, the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, the Southern Environmental Law Association, the Harpeth Conservancy and the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter.

“Pollution from construction stormwater runoff is a massive and ongoing problem in Tennessee, and there is reason to think it will only get worse,” a letter from the groups said. “The draft (permit changes) represents an unacceptable decrease in the level of oversight for construction activities, and the level of protection for Tennessee’s waters.”

TDEC officials have said the change would streamline the permitting process and is based on TDEC’s longtime experience with regulating stormwater runoff. Regulators said that once-per-week inspections were adequate based on that experience, and in line with federal standards.

The policy change does not require legislative approval and the ultimate decision rests with TDEC.

“TDEC is currently reviewing public comments received during the public comment period regarding this permit reissuance,” spokesperson Kim Schofinski said.

“Once our review is complete, we will make a determination and send a formal response to all who submitted a comment during the public comment period.”

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News

Related items

  • Biodiversity in crosshairs as burgeoning Middle Tennessee fears water shortage

    Duck RiverMarshall CoThis biologically rich stretch of the Duck River could soon be the site of a large municipal water intake facility.

    Duck River targeted by thirsty, growing municipalities in Nashville area

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout

    Marshall County, located outside what was once considered the boundary edge of growing suburbs circling Nashville, has seen explosive growth of its own in recent years — call it the Williamson County overflow effect, says County Mayor Mike Keny.

    Drawn by more affordable housing, jobs and the rural character of the county — about an hour from Nashville in the “heart of the Southern Automotive Corridor” (as local economic development officials call it) — the influx of residents, and some relocating business and industry, has brought new urgency to a long-standing reality.

    The county doesn’t have its own water supply. For decades, it has had to pay wholesale for drinking water from the cities of Murfreesboro and Lewisburg. That supply is no longer adequate.

    A new proposal by county officials calls for building a water treatment facility along the banks of the Duck River in northern Marshall County capable of siphoning up to 6 million gallons of water per day; establish a reliable local water supply for decades to come.

    The need for Marshall County,  to have its own water supply, which it has never had, is becoming more urgent with an influx of new residents. But environmental activists say the nearby Duck River, which is biologically diverse, may not be the best option.  
  • As our streams and rivers suffocate, Tennessee regulators plan to loosen runoff rules at construction sites

    2306channelGrading work at a site off Maryville Pike in Knoxville led to silt discharges that resulted in several notices of violation from Tennessee and Knox County regulators. Photo courtesy TDEC.

    Critics say new rules could run afoul of Clean Water Act

     

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    A state plan to rollback longstanding regulations for construction site runoff is drawing opposition from environmental groups who fear that Tennessee creeks and streams will suffer.

    Stormwater discharges from construction sites — rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off-site — can flow into nearby waterways, often creating silt deposits that impact aquatic life and water quality.

    Historically, silt has been one of the primary pollutants in Tennessee’s waterways, a paper explaining the proposed new rules from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC, said. Just one millimeter of soil spread over a one-acre site can weigh 5 tons, and “even a minor uncontrolled construction activity can cause major impairment in surface water,” through runoff, the paper said.

    Nevertheless, TDEC is proposing significant changes in state environmental oversight of builders, developers, property owners, contractors and subcontractors in controlling runoff.

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists keep an eye on endangered fine-rayed pigtoe mussels in Little River

    Daily Times: Biologists keep a close eye on imperiled mussel populations in Little River and beyond

    The Little River in Blount County just west of Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosted just one of five known fine-rayed pigtoed mussel populations when federal officials placed the mussel on the Endangered Species List in 1976. 

    The Daily Times in Maryville reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now conducting a regular five-year review of the mussel's status. It is one of at least 12 mussel species in the river, which has its headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains and flows through Townsend on its way to its ultimate destination: the Tennessee River. Little River is the main source of water for an expanding Blount County population.

    Native mussel populations face the same threats as many non-game fish in the Southern Appalachians. Oxygen is depleted by sediment plumes, which also smother fish eggs, and many mussels rely on small fish to reproduce.

    “Reproduction depends on host fish. During the larval stage the young are stuck together in a packet that resembles the prey of shiners and minnows, which is how they become attached to the fish gills or fins to grow for a few weeks,” the Daily Times reports.

  • Keep your butts out of the Tennessee River

    Cigarette butt recycling bin 4

    Dollywood joins Tennessee Aquarium effort to limit the introduction of cigarette butts to our shared waterways.

    “As all humans need access to clean water, it’s an incredibly important treasure to protect.” — Dr. Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium vice president of conservation science and education.

    Cigarette butts are everywhere, and are perhaps so familiar they go unnoticed by the millions of people who pass them on our streets and roads.

    Not only are they unsightly, they contaminate our water resources — the puddles after a sudden rainstorm, the streams that flow through our landscapes, and the stormwater drains that ultimately lead to the Tennessee River. The butts quickly break down, polluting water with “tiny plastic fibers and a devil’s cocktail of chemical compounds,” according to the Tennessee Aquarium.

    The Chattanooga aquarium has partnered with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, to stem the rising tide of cigarette butts in our waterways.

    Dollywood has also embraced the effort, making it the first theme park in the world to recycle all properly disposed cigarette butts.

    “One cigarette filter can contain enough toxins to kill aquatic life within two gallons of surrounding water,” said Kathleen Gibi, executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

    The action fits the mission of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, which is to inspire the public to take action to protect and preserve the Tennessee River and its tributaries across a seven-state region encompassing Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

    Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the Tennessee Aquarium have partnered to install cigarette-butt recycling receptacles on the aquarium’s campus. They placed eight of these bins in heavily traveled locations.

    “Everybody contributes to the river, whether positively or negatively, so finding stakeholders and inspiring them to take action is what will make the biggest impact,” Gibi said. She also emphasized the importance of the Tennessee Aquarium’s educational programs in protecting water quality.

    The aquarium’s eight cigarette-butt bins are among more than 480 such bins that Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful has installed within the river’s watershed. The shared effort will install another 90 during the coming months.

    Dollywood is among the 73 sites that have installed bins, making it the first theme park in the world that recycles all the cigarette butts it collects, Gibi says.

    Partnering to remove cigarette filters from the river is only part of the aquarium’s ongoing mission to understand the impact on freshwater habitats from microplastics pollution.

    Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education, said, “It’s urgent to understand better ways to manufacture and dispose of plastics, so we reduce their impact on the environment.”

    The Tennessee Aquarium recently installed a new exhibit in the River Journey Building where visitors can discover the impact of microplastics on freshwater environments. The Tennessee Department of Transportation funded this exhibit as part of their Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter reduction campaign.

    In September 2020, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the University of Georgia River Basin Center convened a digital gathering of 50 researchers conducting pioneering studies into the impact of microplastics on freshwater systems.

  • Hellbenders falling off Highland Rim of Tennessee
    in News
    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. 

  • The battle of Flenniken Branch
    in News

    2306channelThis photo was included in a TDEC report compiled March 11. It shows an excavated stream channel amid extensive grading work at 2306 Maryville Pike.  

    Developer of Maryville Pike property in South Knox County faces multiple state, county citations over alleged sediment pollution

    The rapid growth of South Knox County has expanded far from the perimeters of the center city and extended into more development-rich areas.

    One case in point: Significant development is taking place along a once-sleepy section of Maryville Pike between Vestal and Rockford.

    There is a new entrance to the expanded I.C. King Park and its dog park and playground. Just south, one of the country’s largest home builders is finishing its Sevier Meadows subdivision.

    There is another development that illustrates the growing pains and legacy costs that have prompted the county and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to issue a stop-work order and levy multiple fines and citations against the current developer of the old Mayo seed warehouse site.

    There are lessons to be learned from a small waterway called Flenniken Branch about the potential impacts of development on aquatic habitats and other public resources — and the ability of the government to protect those resources.

    A troubled legacy

    Decades of heavy industrial activity left a troubled environmental legacy near the Mount Olive community. Now a new 30-acre construction site is alleged by the state and county to be a significant source of sediment and debris that ultimately end up in the Tennessee River and its tributaries. The state also alleges the contractor buried a stream, and destroyed wetlands at another nearby property.

    The Knoxville-based contractor, Kenn Davin, said he is working to correct the violations, but contends the alleged erosion violations are largely the result of runoff from nearby properties, and that the removal of trees from utility rights of way worsened the problem.

    To make matters worse, one of those nearby sources of runoff, Davin said, is the so-called Witherspoon property, which was so contaminated by industrial waste the Environmental Protection Agency capped and sealed the site a decade ago.

    The property in question is a 28.5-acre parcel at 2306 Maryville Pike, which abuts the Mount Olive Cemetery near Berry Road and was once the site of the D.R. Mayo Seed Co. warehouse.

    Mayo sold the property in August 2019 to Florida-based CW Trust. Davin, principal at Knoxville-based contractor Design One, was designated as the site developer.

    Over the course of the last 13 months, TDEC’s Department of Water Resources has issued three notices of violation for land disturbances and other impermissible activity at the Maryville Pike property.

    The last notice was issued Nov. 20, 2020. Subsequent inspections in January and March noted that Davin was still out of compliance with action steps that had been required by the state.

    Davin has not secured the permits required for the significant grading operations on the property, according to the county.

    “They have not secured their necessary permits through our department for land disturbance,” said Knox County Stormwater Program Manager Natalie Landry.

    Knox County Stormwater Management served a notice of violation for the 2306 Maryville Pike property on Feb. 9, 2021. The developer did not appeal, and a $500 civil penalty was levied.

  • Opponents of Pellissippi Parkway extension cite high cost, environmental damage and changing commuting habits
    in News

    img 2460State and local officials want to expand another 'road to nowhere' by way of the controversial $200 million Pellissippi Parkway extension in Blount County.   Lesli Bales-Sherrod/Hellbender Press

    The newest road to nowhere

    The former “missing link” of the Foothills Parkway. The “road to nowhere” in Bryson City, North Carolina. Blount County, Tennessee, has its own unfinished road project, without the catchy nickname: the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.This proposed 4.4-mile stretch of four-lane highway would lengthen State Route 162, known as Pellissippi Parkway, from where it ends at Old Knoxville Highway (State Route 33) to East Lamar Alexander Highway (State Route 73/U.S. 321) in Maryville.

    The project, which would impact 56 properties and cost at least $60 million, is not without controversy. Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, “believe(s) this interstate highway is not needed, wastes state resources and will have negative impacts on the area along the route and on the quality of life in Blount County as a whole,” according to the group’s website, saveitdontpaveit.org. Besides loss of farmland, residences and businesses, CAPPE’s concerns include sprawl, traffic, water and air quality, noise, economic impact and the destruction of wildlife habitat and increased rates of roadkill.

    State and local government officials, however, maintain the Pellissippi Parkway Extension will address needs such as “limited mobility options in Blount County and Maryville, poor local road network with substandard cross sections (with narrow lanes, sharp curves, and insufficient shoulders), lack of a northwest/east connection east of Alcoa and Maryville, safety issues on roadways in the area, and traffic congestion and poor levels of traffic operation on major arterial roads and intersections,” according to the Record of Decision signed by the Federal Highway Administration on Aug. 31, 2017.

    The Pellissippi Parkway Extension has been part of the Knoxville regional transportation planning vision since 1977, according to a 2010 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and has a long, storied history -- complete with a 2002 lawsuit from CAPPE, seeking to stop it. Nothing has happened publicly, however, since the Record of Decision selected a preferred route for the new stretch of road, which would cross Old Knoxville Highway, Wildwood Road, Brown School Road, Sevierville Road and Davis Ford Road before terminating near Morning Star Baptist Church in Maryville.