Memphis Commercial Appeal 8/19/01
Dickson County store owner Bennie Cathey says he's heard news reports but he hasn't noticed any problems with his water.
Highway agency tries
to roll back trail of ruin
TDOT has reputation as
worst water polluter
By Tom Charlier
FAIRVIEW, Tenn. - Before bulldozers
arrived to carve an interstate-style highway across several delicate watersheds
here, local officials pleaded with the Tennessee Department of Transportation
to take special care to protect one stream in particular.
Turnbull Creek, after all, was no ordinary waterway. It bubbled up from
the earth through hidden springs and limestone crevices, coalescing in
a cool, clear stream where small-mouth bass snapped up minnows and insects
that flitted across gravel shoals.
More important, 35,000 people depended on the stream for drinking water.
The pleas by the Turnbull-White Bluff Utility District came in vain.
During construction of state Route 840, erosion-control measures were
so shoddy, regulators said, that rain unloosed thousands of tons of soupy
red clay, clogging 46 miles of the creek and its tributaries with up to
3 feet of muck and wreaking havoc on the utility's water quality and equipment.
The Turnbull episode last year was nothing less than an environmental
"disaster," Williamson County Chancellor Russ Heldman wrote
in a recent ruling on a lawsuit over the project. But it was hardly the
first involving TDOT.
Time and again, while constructing and improving the state's highway
network, TDOT has built and cemented a reputation as the most profligate
polluter of water in Tennessee.
In the past dozen years alone, the department and its contractors have
broken pollution laws by sullying waterways from trout streams along the
North Carolina border to natural springs in West Tennessee.
They have tainted the headwaters of streams flowing into the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park, heavily damaged at least two public drinking
water systems and racked up by far the most water-quality violations of
any water-polluter in the state.
They have illegally funneled streams into underground drains, left previously
pristine creeks blanketed with mud and swerved to avoid federal oversight
of their work.
These days, TDOT's environmental track record takes on new significance
as it begins planning the Interstate 69 project across West Tennessee.
Although the exact route hasn't been chosen, it will traverse forested
wetlands and one of the state's most scenic rivers, the Hatchie.
No one disputes that road-building can be an unavoidably messy task.
And TDOT can point to a long list of environmental achievements dealing
with everything from wildflower-plantings to historic preservation to
But a number of critics - including some state and local officials, judges,
legislators and conservation groups - contend TDOT consistently runs roughshod
over the state's waters and fails to rein in contractors.
"The ever-apparent central issue is that TDOT has no environmental
commitment," said Elmo Lunn, Turnbull-White Bluff utility chairman
and formerly the state's top water-pollution control official, in a letter
to the Department of Environment and Conservation.
It's a view shared by David McKinney, chief of environmental services
with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He says "tremendous
damage to aquatic resources" occurred because TDOT refused to let
environmental concerns slow construction.
McKinney cites cases in which "they had ample evidence that things
were going to hell in a hand basket, but they weren't about to slow the
Concerns over TDOT's environmental practices have been simmering for
years. In the mid-1990s, the Tennessee Conservation League got a contract
to help TDOT clean up its act after complaining to then-Gov. Ned McWherter
that the department was "out of control."
But Tony Campbell, former executive director of the league, said he discovered
lasting improvements don't come easily at TDOT.
"You've got a culture over there that's build 'em as quick and cheap
as you can, and there's a lot of things that get lost along the way,"
State Rep. Rob Briley (D-Nashville) contends the department often seems
deaf to public concerns.
"I don't think they're accountable. They're not accountable to the
public, to the legislature, their constituency," Briley said.
TDOT is, to be sure, distinct among state agencies in enjoying a measure
of immunity from Tennessee's chronic budget woes and meddling from legislators.
Like transportation agencies in other states, the department's budget
- about $1.4 billion this year - comes from dedicated highway-user fees,
such as fuel taxes, and federal aid. But unlike departments in some neighboring
states, TDOT has no civilian board overseeing it.
While acknowledging its pollution problems over the years, TDOT officials
say the department's environmental record is far better than its critics
Just last month, TDOT reaffirmed an environmental policy adopted seven
years ago pledging to "preserve and enhance the existing landscape,
environment and associated wildlife." In signing the statement, TDOT
commissioner Bruce Saltsman said, "On a day-to-day basis, our employees
go about doing their job with sensitivity to our environment."
If TDOT attracts a lot of environmental concern, department spokesman
Luanne Grandinetti said, it's largely because its work to keep the state's
highway system running is so exhaustive and far-reaching.
Between 1994 and 2000, for example, TDOT let contracts on nearly 5,000
projects and applied for some 2,000 water-related permits.
"There's probably not any other entity with the direct contact with
the land that TDOT has," Grandinetti said. "We're probably the
biggest developer in the State of Tennessee."
State water-quality officials say that point is well taken.
"They (TDOT) are statewide. They are constantly at the plate, so
they have more opportunities to make strikes than anyone else does,"
said Paul Davis, director of the Department of Environment and Conservation's
division of water-pollution control.
Even so, TDOT has worked hard to minimize its impact on the environment.
It has won environmental and design awards from the Federal Highway Administration
for projects scattered from East Tennessee to Shelby County. It has developed
methods to reduce the relocation of streams and use selective tree-cutting
instead of bulldozing.
The department also has improved its erosion-control practices. In 1999,
its projects included $2 million to plant seed on exposed construction
areas and $1.7 million to erect silt fences and barriers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reviews endangered species
and other environmental matters with TDOT, has noticed slow, steady improvements.
"Obviously, there are some bad examples of things that have happened,"
said Bob Bay, a senior staff biologist with the service in Cookeville,
Tenn. "But things have gotten better."
Even critics like Campbell and McKinney say TDOT sometimes fastidiously
protects the environment. "You'll see individual projects where they
do an outstanding job," McKinney said.
Nowhere has the department's environmental progress become more apparent
than in the field of wetlands "mitigation" - the restoration
or enhancement of swamps to compensate for damage from road projects.
A recent study found that TDOT does a better job than industry and other
agencies in mitigating damage to wetlands. "Most of their projects
now seem to be well-done,'' said Thomas Roberts, a biology professor at
Tennessee Tech University.
TDOT officials also emphasize that many pollution problems occurred during
rains intense enough to strain the best erosion-control measures.
And, among state transportation agencies, TDOT is hardly alone in encountering
"TDOT certainly does not have an exemplary environmental record.
Unfortunately, neither do a lot of the other DOTs, especially in the South,"
said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Virginia-based Southern
Environmental Law Center.
But in other states, rampant environmental violations have led to reforms
in transportation departments.
In August 1999, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore accepted the resignation of
state Department of Transportation Commissioner David Gehr and asked for
an investigation of the agency's environmental practices following the
unauthorized destruction of wetlands and a major sewage sludge spill caused
by road construction. Further reforms improved contractor compliance,
VDOT spokesman Tamara Neale said.
TDOT officials say their department, too, has made adjustments designed
to deal with environmental issues ranging from hazardous waste-management
to alternative transportation and water quality.
About a year ago, for instance, the environmental planning and permitting
director's job became a division-level post, which increased its authority
and beefed-up its staff.
And TDOT has been hiring environmental coordinators and assistants for
each of its regional offices.
"Where the shovel meets the dirt, so to speak, that's where you
need to have people watching," said Paul Degges, director of TDOT's
regional office in Middle Tennessee.
Spurred in part by past pollution orders and lawsuits, TDOT officials
also set tougher general and site-specific erosion-control standards to
Erosion control generally is achieved by seeding exposed dirt and installing
silt fences, filter barriers and sedimentation basins to limit the flow
of polluted water from construction zones.
"Erosion control is like pouring concrete or laying asphalt - we
have specs that are to be followed," Degges said. "And in the
majority of cases, we have compliance with those issues."
Still, a review of major TDOT projects and enforcement cases reveals
a pattern of repeated pollution problems resulting mostly from poor erosion
Since 1992, the Department of Environment and Conservation has issued
110 notices of violation against TDOT for water pollution.
And since the late 1980s, five TDOT projects have generated pollution
so severe that the state issued orders seeking a total of up to $809,500
Those cases included pollution from construction sites on the Foothills
Parkway outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1989. Regulators
blamed inadequate erosion-control measures for the mud and silt that washed
into 16 tributaries of the Little River and Cove Creek.
"There was absolutely no connection between (TDOT's) construction
operations and their environmental monitoring," said McKinney of
TWRA. "The data was right there that you have terrible water quality
In the years that followed, similarly damaging pollution occurred along
construction of U.S. 23 in Unicoi County and state Route 111 in Sequatchie
Some five years after the Foothills Parkway pollution, state inspectors
still were finding "minimal" erosion-control efforts along the
state Route 218 bypass near Paris. And more than five years after that,
regulators reported "gross violations" along state Route 840.
The problems occurred in some cases despite explicit warnings from regulators
and local officials about the dangers of pollution.
Before U.S. 23 was built to Sam's Gap on the North Carolina border, regulators
stressed to TDOT and contractors the critical importance of maintaining
erosion control in steep terrain. Nevertheless, water-quality officials
documented pollution problems along the entire length of the project.
"They were clearing right up to the stream bank and weren't leaving
a buffer," said Phil Scheuerman, a professor and director of the
environmental health sciences laboratory at East Tennessee State University,
who advised TDOT.
"They'd open up a half-mile of stream bank, and there's nothing
to protect it."
Once-pristine mountain streams looked "like coffee" as a result,
McKinney said the pollution from the TDOT project was so extreme that
TWRA took the unusual step of backing a lawsuit filed by residents and
environmentalists against its sister state agency.
Another project that was preceded by pollution warnings was state Route
840. Turnbull-White Bluff utility officials wrote a letter urging TDOT
to "plan and provide close attention to erosion control as the project
The warning was "largely ignored," said Lunn, the chairman.
The utility district contends erosion-control measures were "virtually
non-existent" through the first nine months of construction.
However, Steve Wright, vice president of Wright Brothers Construction
Co., the contractor on state Route 840, said erosion-control measures
were up to standard, but catastrophic rains overwhelmed them.
"Yes, some brown water got loose, but it didn't hurt anything,"
As dramatic as pollution appears, TDOT officials say damage usually is
A consultant's report prepared for TDOT concluded that the U.S. 23 erosion
caused little or no long-term damage to water quality and fish habitat,
especially in larger streams.
But McKinney notes that some smaller streams essentially were destroyed
by the project - funneled into buried drainage lines and covered with
tons of fill.
"There are miles and miles of streams up there that will never again
see the light of day," he said.
Lasting harm also resulted from two projects that polluted public drinking
The state Route 111 construction in Sequatchie County caused a landslide
of unstable soil that cascaded down Henson Creek and into a branch of
the Sequatchie River, which supplies water for the city of Dunlap.
"All that sediment migrated down the mountain, into the creek, into
the river and into our intakes. It destroyed both our pumps," said
Clayton Smith, field superintendent for Dunlap.
When rains disgorged mud and clay in the Turnbull Creek watershed along
state Route 840, the turbidity levels measured at the Turnbull-White Bluff
utility treatment plant ranged up to five times greater than ever before
Since then, storms occasionally have required utility officials to shut
the plant down for hours at a time and apply ever-greater amounts of treatment
chemicals. Divers have been called in twice to scrape mud and clay out
In many cases, pollution problems were attributed to poor planning by
In the U.S. 23 construction, TDOT "severely underestimated"
runoff and failed to acquire enough right-of-way for sedimentation basins,
according to the consultants' report.
Further concerns about TDOT planning arose during the state Route 840
The highway, a route looping around metropolitan Nashville, was described
as "Interstate 840" in state legislation authorizing a gas-tax
increase to help pay for it.
But well before construction began, TDOT dropped its application for
Some testimony in a recent lawsuit filed by Williamson County opponents
of the highway suggested TDOT dropped the designation to avoid intense
federal oversight of the project.
Dennis Cook, now an assistant chief engineer for TDOT, testified that
when he was with FHA, a former key TDOT official complained about the
major time delays that often resulted from federal involvement.
"You guys keep us from screwing up sometimes, but you just kill
me with time," Cook recalled the official, Ray Terrell, as saying.
"And that's why he (Terrell) didn't want the Federal Highway Administration
to oversee 840, right?" plaintiff's attorney David E. Lemke asked.
Cook answered it was.
The interstate designation likely would have required the preparation
of a full-scale environmental impact statement, which would have been
subject to extensive review by federal officials and the public.
Instead, TDOT drafted an "environmental assessment," which
Heldman, in his ruling, called an "extremely insufficient" document.
In apparent contradiction of their own policies, TDOT officials also
began right-of-way acquisition through Williamson County without the concurrence
of county commissioners, who sought an environmental impact statement
on the project.
This month, the state Route 840 project is attracting further attention.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals heard arguments Aug. 7 dealing with TDOT's
appeal of a ruling by Heldman last year that halted portions of the project
pending further environmental studies.
And, in a meeting of the state Water Quality Control Board set Aug. 28-29,
TDOT will be appealing an order calling for up to $350,000 in pollution
Lawsuits filed by Turnbull-White Bluff utility officials against TDOT
and contractors are pending.
Meantime, on the east end of the state, TDOT has generated new complaints
on a current project, the widening of U.S. 321 near Gatlinburg. The department,
saying it has fulfilled requirements, began construction even before receiving
water-quality permits for the stream crossings it will encounter.
Despite the controversies and TDOT's checkered record, Davis, the state
water-pollution control chief, said the state can protect streams during
"We are committed to keeping the water clean, and we are working
with our colleagues at TDOT to make that happen," Davis said.
- Tom Charlier: 529-2572
August 19, 2001