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Nashville Scene Caving In

Sewage plant causes stink near Fall Creek Falls

By Liz Murray Garrigan

MARCH 13, 2000:  Science-savvy explorers recently have begun to believe that the cave system under Spencer Mountain near Fall Creek Falls State Park is the longest in Tennessee. Spencer Mountain, after all, is about five times larger than the mountain in White County that's home to Blue Spring Cave, which currently holds the title for Tennessee's longest at 33 miles.

But these cavers now have learned about a discouraging development. The state Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) is about to give a permit to the city of Spencer for a wastewater treatment plant whose discharge would flow into the state park and into that very cave system, possibly killing rare aquatic species.

As Wendy Smith, director of the World Wildlife Funds' Southeast rivers project, puts it, "Having not encountered human sewage before, the aquatic species might not do too well."

The controversy has become a hot internal topic within TDEC, where employees have been secretly working behind the scenes to mitigate the project's potential impact. The issue has even gotten the attention of the national Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has jumped into the fray to work on behalf of state workers who want to offer what they know without jeopardizing their jobs.

The Spencer wastewater plant is funded with $6.4 million in federal and state money. Although environmentalists learned about the plant only during the last few months, it has been in the works for much longer. State officials admit they offered only minimal public notice and held no public hearing, and now the environmental watchdogs want them to go back and do it right.

"The stance I'm taking right now is that this process is flawed," says Smith, whose international organization has found that the waters of the Southeast are among the most species-rich ecosystems in the world. "We're still calling for a public hearing. I think there's still plenty to talk about."

Saya Qualls, the water permit manager at TDEC, says the department has followed the rules of public notice for projects of this size. She points out that TDEC has held private meetings with environmentalists about the project, so she says a public hearing wouldn't generate any new information and wouldn't be "productive."

That may be true. The most damaging information is something state officials already know--that at one time or another, many wastewater treatment plants malfunction, resulting in the discharge of raw or inadequately treated sewage. In this case, the sewage would flow into Dry Fork Creek, from there entering the massive Spencer Mountain cave system. That kind of flow would almost certainly kill the rare blind cave fish that live there.

"What happens in probably 50 percent of the wastewater treatment plants built in Tennessee is they wind up with some failures at some point, and at that point, there is significant damage done," says one TDEC official who requested anonymity. "I guess I'm on the side of people who say more should be done."

Given the history of sewage-damaged caves in Tennessee, this TDEC official says, the Spencer project just makes environmentalists "feel like here goes another one."

The official says it's hard to blame environmentalists for doubting the state's ability to protect Tennessee's resources.

"We always screw up because we don't have enough insight to begin with.We don't have enough people. We're the red-headed stepchild of everybody."

Plant malfunctions aside, environmentalists contend that even the treated sewage from a properly running plant will pollute the cave. That's because the state is planning to permit too-high levels of contaminants, they say.

"As written, what the permit allows as a daily maximum you wouldn't want to drink, swim in, or let your rare blind cave fish live in," says Barry Sulkin, state director for PEER and a former TDEC employee.

Environmentalists want the state to find a new path for the plant's discharge, one that avoids the cave system. But it appears the state will issue a permit for the plant within the next month.

TDEC's Qualls says the plant is well-designed, including modern safeguards, and Spencer needs it badly. The septic systems, both commercial and residential, in the town have high failure rates. That results in raw sewage seeping into the groundwater.

"It really is what we consider to be a pretty substantial health risk," Qualls says.

And besides, she says, "The state of Tennessee issues permits for wastewater treatment plants. We also issue driver's licenses. You can't not issue a driver's license to someone who passes a test just because there are drivers out there that have wrecks. It's the same thing here. Just because there are plants and collection systems that fail, that doesn't keep us from issuing permits for new plants.

"We looked at this pretty closely like we do everything, and there really wasn't a technical or environmental reason for us to deny this."

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