Thursday, January 18, 2007

Fentress County Showdown

Near Pall Mall, TN in Fentress county is a cave the locals call Blowing Cave. Cavers refer to it as Wolf River Cave and it was purchased a few years back by the SCCi and the Nature Conservancy. Before this purchase it was gated by the previous owners, and the SCCi declined to remove the gate to maintain the protection of the Indiana Bats that roost there during the winter. I haven't visited this cave yet, but it's well known as an important cave within the caving community, especially since the Indiana Bat is on the verge of extinction.

Also near Pall Mall, which by the way is the home of Alvin York the World War I hero, is a road named State Route 28 and US127 and the Alvin C. York Highway. (One thing about Tennessee is that almost every road has at least three names.) The stretch of highway near the cave is very curvy, steep, and tends to slide down the hill every couple of days. It reminds me of the road from Vandiver to Leeds back in Shelby County. People tend to die on this road at a regular rate, and TDOT spends a lot of time repairing the road, sometimes on a daily basis.

So obviously many years ago, a decision was made that it needed to be fixed. Being a large bueracracy, TDOT took its sweet time making up its mind, and I'm sure the people of Fentress county spent a lot of time and effort and money pushing them to get it completed. So TDOT comes up with a plan, they bid the contract, and then they decided to apply for the necessary permits with TDEC to alter or destroy several streams and a tiny wetland (0.05 acres).

Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but in this case one of the streams emerges from a conduit in the side of an abandoned quarry then exits the quarry at the bottom through a crack which is termed a "karst fissure." TDOT wants to fill in the quarry and re-route part of the road to go over the top of it. The problem is that they want to fill it with waste material from the cuts they're making for the rest of the road, and that material will almost certainly contain pyrite (Fool's Gold). Pyrite reacts with oxygen and water to produce sulfuric acid, so if the pyritic material were placed in this quarry, it would likely produce acid runoff that would enter the karst region below directly through the fissure.

TDOT's plan to prevent this is to "encapsulate" the material by putting a 6 foot layer of very compacted clay around it and layering crushed limestone every 3 feet which as a base would neutralize the acid. The problem with this is that they have no idea how long the encapsulation would last. They've given various figures of 50 years to 100 years. That's fine, but what about 200 years from now? If the acid enters the karst system and makes its way to the cave, the aquatic life will die. This includes species that are likely unique to that cave system, which has not had a full biological inventory performed on it yet.

The simple solution is just to put the material somewhere else, but TDOT is stubbornly clinging to the encapsulation idea, and the local people, who only want to get the road finished as fast as possible, have fully embraced it.

Fortunately, before TDEC issues permits, it is required to call for public comments. Enough cavers sent in concerns and requested a public hearing that TDEC announced a hearing in Jamestown, TN on January 16, 2007. Four people from the Nashville Grotto rode up to Fentress County that night, along with a few people from the Nature Conservancy and a couple of other cavers. I had a speech prepared since I was representing the Nashville Grotto as I've been elected to be Vice-Chair for 2007. I think we were all expecting a small affair, with a few TDOT, TDEC and maybe some locals that had some interest in the project.

We got there early, and as we chatted amongst ourselves in the lunchroom of the local elementary school, the place filled up. I'm not sure how many people were there, but I'd say well over 200. Fentress County was angry that night, my friends. We were getting stared at early on, but no one was outright rude at that point.

When the poor guy from TDEC stood up to make some opening comments he was immediately barraged with questions and comments from the crowd. Everyone was angry that the road work had been delayed once again, and they were there to voice their discontent. The TDEC rep stated again and again that this hearing was only to hear about "water quality issues", but nearly all of the local people ignored that and repeated over and over how badly the road was needed. At one point someone said "well apparently the only ones opposed to this are the cavers." We knew at this point it might get ugly.

Finally things settled down enough for TDOT to give a powerpoint presentation about the project. It was very slick and polished and designed to play into the emotions of the Fentress county residents. Unfortunately, it left out certain key facts, like the existence of the karst fissure at the bottom of the quarry. The TDOT speaker also made a few snide comments about the people that were concerned about the encapsulation, which was us of course.

There was another barrage of questions to the TDOT rep, and some of them were pretty good. A few locals asked why they couldn't dump the material somewhere else, and someone even asked why they let the bid before they had the necessary permits. The TDOT rep avoided direct answers here. I asked "What is the expected lifespan of the encapsulation?" He hemmed and hawed, and never gave an answer past "a long time" although he did mention a figure of 50 years.

Finally came the time for testimonials. There was a microphone at the front of the room and each person that spoke was required to give their name and then have their say. One of the locals requested that everyone identify where they were from, since someone had asked earlier if the people objecting to the permit were from "New York or China or somewheres?"

The first couple of people that spoke were politicians. As expected, they really had nothing to say about water quality issues and were there to speak to the crowd instead of TDEC. Then 20 to 30 local residents were called and most of them only touched on water quality issues and focused on how dangerous the road was. At this point I was being torn, since I could identify heavily with them and I sure wouldn't want my kids on a bus going down this road twice a day.

Three people opposed to the permit spoke near the end. The first was Heather from the Nature Conservancy. She was clearly nervous and told me afterwards that if our group hadn't been sitting directly in front of the microphone she thought she would have fainted. Next was Bill from the SCCi, and did well going through his prepared speech, although he skipped parts of it since it was getting late. Since the SCCi owns the cave and he was representing them, the anger of the room quickly focused on Bill and there was some muttering while he was up there.

Soon after that it was my turn. I had a two page prepared speech with lots of two dollar words in it, but when I stood up there and looked out across that room I decided at that moment not to use it. I just spoke from my heart. I started with "Hello, my name is Alan Hatcher and as someone requested earlier, I'll say that I live in Hermitage, Tennessee in Davidson county."

I don't remember a lot after that since I got a bit emotional and let some of my anger at TDOT come out. I remember mentioning that I have two children at home and that I'd surely hate to send them over that mountain every day, and that I'd lost an uncle on a similar road in Alabama (the one from Vandiver to Leeds). As we had all said up to that point, we had no desire to block the road project. We only want the pyritic material placed somewhere safer since TDOT has no idea where the karst fissure leads. I also mentioned the creatures in the cave, including the crayfish which can live 40 to 80 years. Apparently I lost them a bit when I mentioned it was important for their grandchildren to be able to see those creatures. Their anger here was about the cave gate and they had been talking about the danger the road presented to the children all evening as well.

Afterwards, no one was rude to me at least. One lady did come up to Bill and introduce herself and then whispered to him "I hope you rot in hell." I talked to someone from the contractor that's going to do the work, and the we left and headed back to Nashville. This was my baptism of fire in speaking at public hearings. It was also the first time I've spoken in front of a hostile crowd. I may have lost my cool a bit, but at least I looked them all in the eye while I was speaking to them.

The only other interesting part of this story is that I was sitting at the same lunch room table with Alvin York's son, who is a ranger at the park that's now where Alvin lived. I didn't get to speak to him, but it was a slightly odd feeling being only one degree of separation away from someone I read about many times as a child and who was one of my childhood heroes, but being worlds away that night due to a disagreement over a hole in the ground.


ozotl said...

OK now that the community of Jamestown truely hates cavers I suppose it would not be wise to leave your car parked near WRC? The whole town of Spencer hates cavers and now Jamestown. While I can applaud your efforts to stand in front of an angry mob (I am sure that must have been difficult)I don't see where the outcome has improved matters any.

BamaNana said...

SO! Someone is always hating some other group - nothing new there. The issue is that you made an effort to initiate a change in a situation and showed compassion & understanding. Next time you speak before such a group will be easier. FM would have been proud. You know that he would also have been proud of a knockdown drag out brawl. Just don't take it out on your loving family - home or in caving group. Invite ozotl to learn more about environmental issues. Education will open your mind.

bug said...

If research is conducted you may find that the Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and ACCA were the organizations that placed the gate on the cave.

I do not think any one will argue the point that the people of Pall Mall need a better road. And the Nashville Grotto, SCCi and the Nature Conservancy apparently want to prevent any undue impact to the cave and the creatures within. But where is the data and research that confirms the "karst fissure" at the bottom of the quarry does indeed connect to the cave? Or is this mere speculation?

It would be hoped that Nashville Grotto, SCCi and the Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy would work with TDOT on this road project and get the people of Pall Mall a much need road instead of against TDOT thus bringing undue shame to all cavers. Afterall not many cavers are political and all cavers should not get a "bad rap" for these type actions.

Alan said...

It's easy to hide behind anonymity and take potshots at us and you're just quoting the same old tired arguments.

No one, I repeat "NO ONE" is interested in delaying the road project. It all comes down to TDOT going about it in the wrong way. The SCCi and "cavers" offered to have a dye trace done on the karst feature and TDOT turned it down. They're using mis-information to distract everyone from the problem that encapsulating this material in this location is just wrong. They can easily truck it somewhere safer and solve this whole problem quickly and quietly. Trying to blame "cavers" that happen to care about what's going on around them by saying we're "political" is just a cheap shot and verges on plain ignorance.