The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Thomas Fraser

Oak Ridger: Landfill moves ahead, for now, for DOE demolition debris in Oak Ridge

Hellbender Press contributor Ben Pounds has a great piece in the Oak Ridger about a long dispute over a plan to bury low-level nuclear onsite in a greenfield on Department of Energy property in Oak Ridge. Over the years, many such contaminated materials were typically transported to off-site storage points, namely the western U.S.

Detractors of the plan worry local landfill membranes and safeguards could ultimately fail or be compromised, leading to a surge of low-level radioactive materials and associated contaminants, into the surrounding area and its water tables. Most of the debris slated for storage comes from the demolished legacy buildings of the Oak Ridge Reservation, originally built as part of the Manhattan Project atomic weapons program during World War II.

“DOE released a Draft Record of Decision Monday, July 12, which goes over some of the aspects of this proposed landfill and environmental issues related to it, as part of the process to get approval from Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation,” Pounds reported in the Oak Ridger.

“Kim Schofinski, TDEC deputy communications director, stated her agency is currently reviewing the document and its revisions, which could take around 120 days.”

Published in Feedbag

KnoxNews: Welcome to Rocky Top, Rotty Top!

A seldom-seen corpse flower is about to burst forth in bloom following a 20-year sleep — presumably not in a casket and not at the Body Farm — at the Hesler Biology Building at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

A previous faculty member got the plant two decades ago, but this is its first blooming cycle, according to the News Sentinel. It has been nursed along by current greenhouse director Jeff Martin — in someone else’s office, of course. The plant only blooms about every 10 years, if not more infrequently.

Members of the public are invited to come partake of the odor and revel in sheer stank in the next several days. 

“A 2010 study by Japanese researchers attributed the plant’s smell to a combination of chemicals that smell like cheese, sweat, garlic, decaying meat, rotten eggs and more,” according to the News Sentinel.

But it’s not just about the smell: The plant produces the world’s largest flower and is endangered in the wild. Pollen from this corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum — you can suss out the literal definition yourself) may be used to pollinate other endangered corpse flowers, which are native to Southeast Asia. 

The odor is an evolutionary pollination mechanism to attract flies and other insects that are attracted to the smell of rotting flesh.

Published in Feedbag

WBIR: Knox County planners approve massive subdivision over community concerns

Knox County planners last week approved the concept plan for a 180-acre, 400-home subdivision off Ruggles Ferry Pike in Strawberry Plains on steep, rugged rural land in East Knox County despite community concerns about the impact of the development on the natural features and infrastructure of the area.

Compass Knoxville reported Innsbruck Farms subdivision would be one of the county’s largest housing developments, but it met all requisite zoning codes and planning requirements. 

“The development met all zoning requirements and conformed to the county’s East Sector Plan, leaving planning commissioners little choice but to approve the project. The decision disappointed area residents concerned about preserving the rural nature of the Carter community,” Compass reported.

“This is the latest development in the county’s ongoing struggle to expand,” according to WBIR reporter Katelyn Keenehan. “Knox County is in need of 40,000 homes in the next 30 years to meet the increasing population. Innsbruck Farms is just the beginning.”

Published in Feedbag

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Grant to expand electric fleet will help city advance its emissions-reduction goals

The federal government kicked down a $4.8 million grant to Knoxville for additional electric transit buses. It will expand the current Knoxville Area Transit electric fleet by six vehicles, the city announced July 12. That means KAT could have a total of 18 electric buses operating on routes across the city by the end of next year.

The funds were disbursed from the federal Low and No Emission Vehicle Grant Program, which helps municipal transit agencies acquire low- or zero-emission buses and other transit vehicles, according to the city. Sen. Bill Hagerty and Rep. Tim Burchett supported the grant application. 

KAT wants to electrify its entire 71-bus fleet within eight years. 

“This will go a long way in helping KAT transition to an all-electric fleet,” Mayor Indya Kincannon said in the news release. “With each new electric bus, we are reducing our carbon footprint. We are moving closer toward our goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions associated with City operations by 50 percent by 2030 — and a communitywide reduction of 80 percent by 2050.”  

The grant furthers a city goal of replacing aging KAT diesel buses “with state-of-the-art electric buses that are about three times more fuel-efficient than a standard diesel bus (13 MPGDE vs. 4.4 MPG),” according to the city. 

“Knoxville Area Transit provides an important service for folks in Knoxville, which is why earlier this year I asked the Federal Transit Administration to give KAT’s Low-No application grant full consideration,” Burchett said in the city release. “I’m glad this grant was awarded to our community so KAT can modernize its fleet to be more efficient and environmentally friendly.” 

Published in News

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Report: Cascading bond forfeiture threatens surface mine cleanup

A new report from Appalachian Voices warns that mining companies will increasingly abandon reclamation bonds as the coal industry continues to decline in the Southern Appalachians, adding to already extensive public liability for cleanup costs.

Cleanup and reclamation with a price tag of nearly $10 billion must be still be done on 630,000 acres across seven states, according to the report, Repairing the Damage: The costs of delaying reclamation at modern-era mines.

Reclamation of lands and waters destroyed by coal surface mining could create some 40,000 jobs across the affected regions, virtually replacing, at least temporarily, all the mining jobs that have been lost during the past decade.

“The coal industry has declined precipitously in the last decade, raising the question of whether adequate regulations are in place to ensure that mined land is properly reclaimed,” according to a summary of the report, which was released July 7.

“As more coal companies declare bankruptcy, fewer companies remain to take over mines, so the number of companies forfeiting mining reclamation bonds and deserting their cleanup responsibilities will only increase. In many states, the funds generated by bonding programs may fall short of the actual reclamation costs that are passed to state agencies and taxpayers,” according to Appalachian Voices.

 

Published in Earth

Daily Times: Biologists keep a close eye on imperiled mussel populations in Little River and beyond

The Little River in Blount County just west of Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosted just one of five known fine-rayed pigtoed mussel populations when federal officials placed the mussel on the Endangered Species List in 1976. 

The Daily Times in Maryville reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now conducting a regular five-year review of the mussel's status. It is one of at least 12 mussel species in the river, which has its headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains and flows through Townsend on its way to its ultimate destination: the Tennessee River. Little River is the main source of water for an expanding Blount County population.

Native mussel populations face the same threats as many non-game fish in the Southern Appalachians. Oxygen is depleted by sediment plumes, which also smother fish eggs, and many mussels rely on small fish to reproduce.

“Reproduction depends on host fish. During the larval stage the young are stuck together in a packet that resembles the prey of shiners and minnows, which is how they become attached to the fish gills or fins to grow for a few weeks,” the Daily Times reports.

Published in Feedbag

Citizen-Times: Festival-like atmosphere on famed bald led to massive litter, waste and wildlife problems

They trampled warbler habitat restoration areas. They left behind tons of cheap camping equipment. They failed to properly bury or transport human waste. They left their vehicles parked willy-nilly on an access road, impeding the ability of emergency vehicles serving the surrounding areas. They ruined it for the rest of us.

Now Max Patch is closed to camping and other restricted uses for two years, Pisgah National Forest authorities announced on July 1.

Over the past decade, the bald in Madison County, North Carolina with 360-degree views of the surrounding Appalachians experienced stunning overcrowding and misuse, with some areas resembling jam-band festivals at times.

The Appalachian Trail traverses the bald, which was home to vital projects to restore wildlife and vegetative habitat. Now visitors are subject to numerous and pointed restrictions, and failure to abide by the new rules could bring tickets and fines.

The restoration could be a long process.

Published in Feedbag

Brace fishingA Knoxville man tries his hand at fly fishing in Abrams Creek during a family camping trip on the southwestern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Green begets green in Smokies region; Big South Fork and Cumberland Gap also economic players

Recent federal analysis of spending by national park visitors is a testament to the economic benefits of environmental protection, scientific study and outdoor recreation.

The 12.1 million visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2020 spent $1.024 billion in neighboring communities in both Tennessee and North Carolina, according to a study released this week by the National Park Service. Similar, localized releases were distributed into national park communities across the country.

Closer to home, that number represents the estimated visitor money spent in areas that include traditional “gateway” communities, such as Townsend and Gatlinburg, and Cherokee and Bryson City in North Carolina. Regionally, it’s at least a $5 million increase since 2012. Travel problems, housing and employee shortages, overdevelopment and environmental destruction are of course persistent in some of those areas.

Published in News

Hard Knox Wire: Racist leader’s death in Knoxville was by suicide

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Craig Spaulding, 33, took his own life on April 8 on Belt Road in South Knox County.

The death, originally reported by Hellbender Press via Hard Knox Wire, was initially attributed to an accidental gunshot wound.

“Spaulding was a self-described white nationalist, which means he was a member of a group of militant white men and women who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation,” Hard Knox Wire reported.

He regularly organized groups to spew hate at people participating in LGBTQ or Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“White supremacists under Spaulding’s leadership have been operating in the area and traveling to events outside of East Tennessee for several years, such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.”

Hard Knox Wire reported that Spaulding was showing a son of a friend how to shoot when he abruptly and purposefully shot himself in the head with a .25 caliber Ruger. His blood-alcohol content at the time was approaching three times the legal limit, according to autopsy reports.

Published in Feedbag

Washington Post: Water scarcity persists in poor communities

The digital divide is a serious issue between rural and urban America, but some 2 million people in rural America even lack access to piped, clean water and plumbing, according to a study from the U.S. Water Alliance.

Some of those communities are in Southern Appalachia. This Washington Post article describes a man in McDowell County, West Virginia, not far from the VIrginia Blue Ridge, who fills two 200-gallon tanks each week from a creek down the mountain from his house to provide wash water for his family. He uses a pump, and hose on loan from a local fire department.

Politicians and local utilities have promised for years to extend water utilities to such underserved, largely poor, areas. Much like the promises of broadband elsewhere, they have not delivered.

Published in Feedbag