Beginning in the 1980s, the number of paper and wood chip mills in Tennessee grew dramatically. With no legislation regulating the clearing of forested land, some parts of Tennessee experienced widespread clear-cutting of old forests. Over the years, local environmental groups have fought for an overarching law that would insist on responsible forestry practices. While no such law has been passed, some stop-gap measures have been put in place.
Strip mines have a devastating environmental impact. In a strip mine, the surface of the earth above a seam of coal is removed, leaving scarred and bare earth. The most devastating type of strip mining is mountaintop removal, when the whole mountain is destroyed by explosives to get to the coal, which can lie as many as 800 feet below the surface.
Mountaintop removal and other types of strip mining have terrible consequences for drinking-water quality, animal and plant life, and the native culture of places that are affected. Dumping of debris from the removal process buries streams and fills valleys. When the coal companies are done, they pile dirt back up on the exposed mountains and drop exotic grass seed from above. In this way, they say, the mountain is restored. But while they may be able to approximate the shape of the old mountain, they cannot re-create the intricate web of life that once existed there.
Strip mining is most common in parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, but it takes place in Tennessee, too. Mining operations exist in Scott, Campbell, and Claiborne Counties in the northern Cumberland Plateau region. Residents and environmental activists fought to prevent mountaintop removal at Zeb Mountain in Scott and Campbell Counties, but were unsuccessful.
In 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, Tennessee had 43 coal mines and produced 2.8 million short tons of coal.
Car emissions, industrial pollution, and other activities cause air pollution. In Tennessee, exhaust from cars and trucks, plus the toxic emissions from coal-fired generating plants, are the biggest contributors to air pollution.
As a result, Clean Air Tennessee, a state-sponsored agency, monitors air quality in seven locations in the state: Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, the Tri-Cities, Clarksville, Chattanooga, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can check air-quality forecasts and historical air-quality data on their website, www.cleanairtn.org. On this website you can sign up to receive alerts when air-quality levels reach dangerous levels in your area.
The air quality in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a serious concern for scientists. According to the park, the average visibility is 25 miles, compared to the national average of 93 miles. Some days, haze causes visibility to diminish to less than one mile. Some days, the level of ground-level ozone exceeds what is recommended for human exposure.
Air quality is usually worst during the hot summer months of July and August.
According to the Tennessee Environmental Council, the state has the seventh-highest rate of development in the United States. Some 80,000 acres of rural land are developed in Tennessee each year. The areas around Nashville and Knoxville have seen the greatest sprawl.
Urban and suburban sprawl leads to long driving times, increased air pollution, strain on scarce water resources, and the elimination of farmland, rural landscapes, and natural habitats. Smart growth policies, zoning issues, and better transportation solutions are some of the biggest challenges facing Tennessee at the moment.
The cleanliness of Tennessee’s rivers, lakes, and streams is monitored according to the standards of the Clean Water Act. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation monitors the health of the state’s rivers, and publishes an annual list that divides bodies of water into categories one through five, where category one is the cleanest and five the dirtiest. In its last report, the agency reported that some 25 percent of the state’s river miles were category one and 31 percent were in the dirtiest category. As for lakes and reservoirs, 21 percent of lake acres were classified as “impaired.”
Most water pollution is caused by sedimentation and silt run-off from construction and agriculture. Habitat alternation, pathogens found in wastewater, and nutrients from fertilizers are also problems. Some pollution can be readily cleaned up, but so-called “legacy pollutants,” such as PCBs and chlordane from old industrial sites, can remain present for years and can poison fish and other marine animals.
According to the state government, some 41 percent of pollution in streams and rivers in 2006 came from agriculture; 19 percent from hydrologic modification; and 18 percent from municipal sources. For lakes, some 72 percent of contaminants were legacy pollutants.
The state is supposed to post a warning when a river or stream is deemed too polluted for fishing, swimming, or other forms of use. For a listing of such bodies of water, contact the Water Pollution Control division of the Department of Environment and Conservation (615/532-0625).
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition