Thousands of Asian carp dying in TN lakes; TWRA investigating

News release from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

NASHVILLE — Boaters may have noticed recently that there is a large number of fish dying along the shoreline throughout Kentucky and Barkley lakes, an occurrence that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is aware of and investigating.

The dead fish are silver carp, an invasive species that can negatively impact native fish and recreational boating. Because of these threats, the TWRA has been working to stem their expansion into new waters.

“While we are trying to learn how to slow or stop their expansion, the recent die-off of thousands of fish for whatever reason has occurred naturally,” noted Frank Fiss, Chief of TWRA’s Fish Division.

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TDEC adds 1,058 acres to South Cumberland State Park

News release from Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

MARION COUNTY, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), in partnership with The Conservation Fund, The Land Trust for Tennessee and the Open Space Institute (OSI), today announced the addition of 1,058 acres to South Cumberland State Park in Marion County. The acquisition connects more than 7,000 acres of protected public land, conserves forestland and cove habitat from future development, and protects scenic views on the Fiery Gizzard trail.  Continue reading

TDEC fines Memphis $512K for sewage spill

A year after ruptures in the Memphis wastewater system began spewing millions of gallons of raw sewage into local streams and lakes, Tennessee environmental regulators issued an order Thursday assessing at least $512,857 in penalties and damages against the city, reports the Commercial Appeal.

The order signed by Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Robert Martineau cited the ruptures of a 96-inch interceptor, a 60-inch pipe and a 42-inch line that occurred between March 31 and April 18, 2016, after heavy rain washed out the stream banks in which the pipes were buried.

State officials estimate that more than 350 million gallons of untreated wastewater poured into Cypress Creek and McKellar Lake in Southwest Memphis, killing at least 72,000 fish. The rupture of the 42-inch pipe along the Loosahatchie River, along the city’s northern edge, spewed at least 7.5 million gallons of raw sewage before crews finished a bypass line that ended the leak.

The order calls for Memphis to pay $359,855.98 into a state natural resource damages fund and ante up a civil penalty of at least $49,920 and more if it fails to comply with environmental-restoration work prescribed by the department. In addition, city must some $61,929 in damages to TDEC and $41,153 to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which investigated the fish kill.

…The order isn’t final until 30 days after its issuance, and the city can file an appeal that would be heard by an administrative law judge.

Memphis aquifer gets bipartisan protection push from Shelby County legislators

Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey and Democratic Sen. Lee Harris are at opposite ends of the political spectrum but say they’ll jointly work for legislation to protect the Memphis aquifer, source of the city’s drinking water, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Kelsey says he will introduce legislation, sponsored in the House by Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, that would create a regional board or entity overseeing the Memphis Sand aquifer. Harris will be a co-sponsor.

Kelsey described the bill as an initial step toward finding ways to protect the Memphis Sand, acknowledging that the concept of a regional board may need further examination.

“I’m open to plenty of other ideas, and I hope this would begin the discussion,” he said.

Harris said the bill is needed to ensure area residents have a “greater voice” in protecting the aquifer.

The legislative move follows months of controversy last year over plans by the Tennessee Valley Authority to pump 3.5 million gallons of aquifer water daily to cool a power-generating plant it is building in Southwest Memphis. Environmentalists and some scientists opposed the pumping, saying it could set a troubling precedent and suck contaminants into the Memphis Sand, which supplies public utilities and private industry in Shelby County with more than 180 million gallons of high-quality water daily.

In November, however, the Shelby County Groundwater Quality Control Board denied an appeal filed by environmentalists seeking to overturn the county’s issuance of permits authorizing wells for the TVA project. Board members said the project complied with the county’s well regulations.

In addition to the planned state legislation, some county officials have called for stricter local ordinances to regulate wells drilled into the Memphis Sand.

Kelsey said the TVA project underscored the need for better oversight of the aquifer.

“I do think it’s important to the community to protect our clean water. It’s one of our most important resources,” he said.

AG opinion sought on legality of Fall Creek Falls privatization

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, whose district includes the 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park, has requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery on whether proper procedures were followed in plans to privatize park operations, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee State Employees Association also is raising questions about Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to turn hospitality services over to a private operator at Fall Creek Falls, long considered the “crown jewel” of Tennessee’s park system.

Employees association Executive Director Randy Stamps, an attorney, told the Times Free Press he questions whether Haslam has the legal authority to go forward with the move.

“We believe they’re in such a big hurry to rush through this RFP [request for proposals] that maybe they overlooked some pertinent sections of state law,” said Stamps, a former Republican state representative.

Bowling said in an interview that employees asked her to seek the legal opinion.

“I’m glad to do that,” Bowling said. Park workers in her district have protested over fear for their jobs, and Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson worries about lost revenue for up to two years while a new lodge is built that a for-profit company would run.

“Confusion is always the enemy of good public policy,” Bowling said, “and so if we know in fact that’s following the code, that’s one set of information. If we know that it wasn’t, that opens up a different avenue. But we have to know. That’s foundational.”

Two Democratic lawmakers are convinced Haslam wants to privatize other state parks with similar amenities. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, held a town hall meeting Friday in Spencer, the town closest to the park.

And Stamps said the statute dealing with state parks and contracting “appears to prohibit the outsourcing of state services without it being part of the master plan for parks.”

“At this time, we’re unaware that this is part of their master plan that’s been approved appropriately,” Stamps said.

“It could be that they overlooked the law,” he added. “It could be that they dealt with it in some way. But right now it appears they’re in violation of the statute.”

Eric Ward, spokeman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said officials are on sound legal ground.

“TDEC hasn’t seen Sen. Bowling’s request, but we’re confident our proposed effort to ensure the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls is well within our legal authority and we’re happy to answer any questions from the attorney general or members of the General Assembly related to this matter,” Ward said.

Feds ban mountaintop coal mining on 75,000 acres in East TN

The federal government on Wednesday banned mountaintop coal mining from more than 500 miles of ridges in East Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, reports Michael Collins. The move was praised by Tennessee’s environmental commissioner and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander as well as conservation groups – though condemned by mining officials.

The Department of Interior said it is designating nearly 75,000 acres of mountain ridges as unsuitable for surface mining, in essence barring a controversial form of mining known as mountaintop removal. (Note: The department’s press release, with much comment, is HERE.)

…The decision comes in response to a petition filed in 2010 by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, just three months before he left office. In its petition, the state said mountaintop coal mining would be incompatible with existing local and state plans and would affect fragile or historic lands that would result in significant damage to cultural, scientific, aesthetic values or natural systems.

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Board lets stand TVA permits to take water from Memphis aquifer

After a daylong hearing Wednesday, the Shelby County Groundwater Quality Control Board upheld permits authorizing the Tennessee Valley Authority to tap the Memphis Sand aquifer for water to cool a Memphis power plant, reports the Commercial Appeal.

By a 7-0 vote, the board denied an appeal by the Sierra Club of the Health Department’s decision to grant the final two of five well permits sought by TVA.

Environmentalists had warned during the hearing Wednesday that the planned use of Memphis Sand aquifer water to cool a power plant could endanger public drinking supplies, while local officials defended their approval of wells for the facility.

The hearing centered on the Sierra Club’s appeal of county permits authorizing two of five wells sought by the TVA for its $975 million Allen Combined Cycle Plant under construction in Southwest Memphis. TVA plans to pump some 3.5 million gallons of water daily to cool the natural gas-fired plant, which will be a cleaner-burning alternative to the nearby coal-fired Allen Fossil Plant slated for retirement in 2018.

“We’ve had a plentiful water supply. However, there’s no guarantee that plentiful water supply will continue…,” said Webb Brewer, an attorney representing the Sierra Club.

“The new power plant will be a good thing from an ecological standpoint, but we do not need to waste water to operate that plant.”

But during his opening statement, Assistant County Attorney Carter Gray said the TVA wells met the requirements set by local regulations. Consequently, Health Department officials “were required” to issue permits for them, he said.

Regardless of Trump policies, TVA committed to cutting back on coal

President-elect Donald Trump may roll back carbon limits and other environmental regulations on electric utilities, but the Tennessee Valley Authority is still moving away from coal-fired power generation, reports the Times-Free Press.

The federal utility, which two decades ago derived more than two-thirds of its electricity from burning coal, expects to get less than a fourth of its power from coal next year and only 15 percent of its generation from coal a decade from now.

Trump has pledged to bring back the coal industry and limit what he says are costly regulations on coal mining and power generation, including the Clean Power Plan proposed by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency last year but delayed by a Supreme Court stay on its implementation.

TVA CEO Bill Johnson says the utility will continue moving toward meeting the carbon-reduction targets of the Clean Power Plan as it retires aging coal plants and replaces them with lower-carbon natural gas-fired power plants and more wind, solar and nuclear power.

“We have been following a path that is consistent with the direction of the Clean Power Plan, but we’ve been following it based on what’s the best for our customers, and they happen to line up,” Johnson told analysts and reporters on a recent conference call. “We really have been following the plan that says if we modernize the fleet as we diversify, what is the best economic and rate path to follow? And that’s really what we will continue to do in every decision we make.”

TVA has already shuttered 24 of the 59 coal-fired units the utility once operated, including all eight units at its Widows Creek Fossil plant and all five units at the Colbert Fossil plant, both in Alabama, and four units at the John Sevier plant near Rogersville, Tenn. TVA reached a settlement with environmental groups in the EPA five years ago.

Deal preserves 4,000 southern Cumberland Plateau acres

More than 4,000 acres on the southern Cumberland Plateau will be protected under an agreement involving the state, land conservation groups and property owners, reports the Times-Free Press.

The land includes more than 8 miles of streams in the Crow Creek Valley and other vital habitat for endangered species that live just north of the Alabama border.

The project also protects local mining jobs for the next 50 years and connects 25,000 acres of forest and wildlife corridor, according to officials with The Conservation Fund and The Land Trust for Tennessee, the nonprofit organizations that partnered on the effort with the state.

“The South Cumberland State Park area is unique in many ways,” Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for state parks and conservation, said in a statement. “By providing protection of the threatened species and preserving one of Tennessee’s most scenic lands, Tennessee State Parks will preserve and protect this wild place forever.”

The protected 4,061 acres lie along the eastern side of the Crow Creek Valley above the tiny town of Sherwood, Tenn. Sherwood is home to about 500 people and Sherwood Mining Co., the town’s longtime limestone mining operation that harks back to the days when the community was three times its present size.

The Conservation Fund, with support from The Land Trust for Tennessee, purchased 3,893 acres earlier this year from the mining company. The company retained the right to mine limestone underneath the property for the next 50 years, officials said.

…In an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the mining company donated an additional 168 acres to mitigate impacts from mining on the painted snake-coiled forest snail habitat. Franklin County is the only place in the world the animal lives. The habitat of the endangered Morefield’s leather flower and seven other rare species of plants and animals also is protected.

Wildfires cost TN $5M; Haslam vows to punish arsonists

Fighting Tennessee wildfires has already cost the state an estimated $5.5 million, not counting mention property damage, and Gov. Bill Haslam is vowing to go after arsonists believed responsible for setting at least half the blazes across drought-parched portions of the state, reports the Times-Free Press.

“We obviously are very concerned about fires in Tennessee, particularly the fact that it looks like the majority of them were set by arsonists,” Haslam told reporters. “I can assure you we’re going to pursue those folks with everything they can because the impact on our communities is huge.”

…U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., toured wildfire scenes in Hamilton County Monday.

(State Agriculture Commissioner Jai) Templeton and forestry officials told the governor that preliminary estimates indicate Tennessee stands to recoup at least $900,000 in federal emergency funds for money it spent on a three-fire “complex” near Soddy-Daisy in Hamilton County, Smith County in nearby Sequatchie County and East Miller Cover in Blount County. Because they have been federally designated, the federal government would pay 75 percent of costs.

Non-federally designated areas, however, are on Tennessee taxpayers’ dime with the state bringing in firefighting teams from other states. A Florida team made a huge difference in fighting the North Hamilton County fires, Templeton and other officials told the governor.

…As for what more punishments are in store for suspected arsonists, Haslam said, “I’ve actually asked that question. We’re trying to see what we can do there that we can do within the powers given us. But I would be in favor of doing it. I’ll obviously have to see what we can do.”

He said he may push tougher laws for future arsonists.


Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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