Memphis Commercial Appeal 8/19/01

Editorial: New TDOT mandate: Clean up your act

CONSTRUCTION OF a new interstate highway through West Tennessee is on the horizon. Residents of the region need assurances the project will be completed in such a way that it doesn't deposit more silt and sludge into West Tennessee rivers and streams, many of which already are overburdened.

To that end, the Tennessee Department of Transportation should make it clear that environmental considerations during the construction of Interstate 69 will be more than an afterthought.

The benefits of the new road from Canada to Mexico by way of Memphis are widely understood. Its possible perils are not so often discussed. Although its precise route has not been determined, it's certain the road will cross forested wetlands in this end of the state, as well as the scenic Hatchie River, which creates great potential for harm.

And although it has completed some of its projects without major harm to the environment, TDOT has compiled a dismal overall environmental impact record across the state.

The state road-building agency is an arm of state government that enjoys an extraordinary level of autonomy and its own exclusive funding source, the state gasoline taxes that motorists pay at the pump.

But TDOT has acquired a reputation as the state's biggest polluter, and unlike transportation departments in some neighboring states, it has no civilian board overseeing its operations.

As essentially the largest construction company in the state, TDOT has more opportunities that any other entity to foul up Tennessee's rivers and streams. It is carrying out a function in state government that lends itself to environmental degradation and isn't alone among Southern state transportation departments, whose failure to emphasize environmental sensitivity is well documented.

But as a public entity, it should be expected to emphasize preservation of the environment as an essential part of its road building mission. That has not been a primary consideration in one case after another as TDOT goes about the task of building new highways and improving the state's road system. The damage extends from the North Carolina border to West Tennessee.

As reporter Tom Charlier of The Commercial Appeal reported in Sunday's editions, at least two public drinking water systems have been heavily damaged in recent years.

Lawsuits filed by Turnbull-White Bluff utility officials against TDOT and contractors are pending in Middle Tennessee, where construction of state Route 840 last year sent thousands of tons of soupy red clay into 46 miles of Turnbull Creek and its tributaries and clogged the utility's water supply equipment.

TDOT also plans to appeal an order calling for up to $350,000 in pollution penalties in a meeting of the state Water Quality Control Board set Aug. 28-29.

In some cases, contractors working under TDOT supervision have illegally funneled streams into underground drains. In some cases they have managed to avoid federal oversight of their work. Despite indications that damage was being done to state natural resources, the speed at which some projects have been completed apparently has outweighed those concerns.

The department has gone out of its way on some projects to protect the environment, earning environmental and design awards from the Federal Highway Administration and developing methods to mitigate damage to streams and forests.

It has increased the authority of the director of the environmental planning and permitting functions, also beefing up the staff. It has made the commitment to hire environmental coordinators and assistants for each of its regional offices.

Still, the record of the agency is spotty, even in cases in which regulators and local officials offered explicit warnings that projects were taking a toll on the environment.

Lawsuits and fines for violating state pollution control laws can help raise awareness of the pollution control element of TDOT operations. The appointment of a civilian review board could improve the situation.

In some cases, however, repairing the damage to a polluted stream can be an even more difficult task than changing the mindset of a bureaucracy.


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Tennessee Clean Water Network
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