Skip to content

EPA rules against Black Swamp project

EPA rules against Black Swamp project

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008 9:29 pm

By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter A 10-year disagreement between two state agencies over management of Black Swamp wetland near Kenton has been settled by a third party. Or has it? Surprise intervention by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests the winner is the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) and the loser is the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Yet the smoke remains over the battlefield. EPA’s order of Oct. 3 raises a weighty constitutional question: Does any agency of the U.S. government have authority to overrule a federal court order? Simply stated, TWRA made some improvements that included a spillway, installation of a culvert and gates and a road. As required by law, it applied for a water quality permit from TDEC but was denied. And now EPA has ordered TWRA to dismantle its improvement project at Black Swamp and set a seven-day deadline for the work to begin. As you might imagine, TWRA officials are anything but happy about it. “We are going to do what we are ordered to do,” said TWRA deputy director Gary Fox. “It doesn’t mean we like it, but we are going to comply with the EPA order. We started the (dismantling) process last week. We have not completed it.” Fox said TWRA considered filing an appeal but decided against it. About $80,000 of sportsmen’s dollars funded by license fees was invested in constructing the project. Dismantling will cost about $40,000. TWRA is not funded by state tax dollars. “We have the option to argue with EPA,” Fox continued. “We could load up with lawyers and head to Atlanta. We won’t, though, because we just cannot in good conscience spend sportsmen’s dollars to argue the case at that level. We just don’t have the resources. Besides, by the time we would get the case heard, the project would be dismantled.” Before EPA entered the picture, TWRA and TDEC had agreed to go before the state Water Quality Control Board in Nashville to argue their cases. They had agreed to abide by the board’s decision. But EPA took that option out of the overall process. “We, in good faith, agreed to go through a process,” Fox said. “But it’s been preempted by EPA. We agreed to something that’s not going to be allowed to take place. We did a lot of work to prepare for what we feel is a good project. But we’re not going to be able to present it. We are having to remove the Black Swamp project, and if you remove it, there’s little reason to go back and plead for something you’ve destroyed.” The project Black Swamp as a current issue began in 1997, but its roots reach back to the 1960s when the U.S. Corps of Engineers applied its straight-line mentality approach to flood control to West Tennessee rivers in a venture known as the West Tennessee Tributaries Project (WTTP). In environmental terms, WTTP was a debacle. It converted the natural meander of a river bed to a straight-line “ditch.” The catch-phrase for it was “channelization.” It was reasoned that a big ditch, or channel, would better serve as flood control for area farmers. The Corps ditched a huge portion of West Tennessee rivers until a federal court, at the behest of private property owners, intervened and stopped them. Jim Johnson of Samburg was a biologist and regional supervisor during a 33-year career with TWRA. In his recent book, “Rivers Under Siege, the Troubled Saga of Tennessee’s Wetlands,” he tells about WTTP and the Black Swamp project. “Construction on WTTP began early in 1961, and by the end of the decade, the Corps had completed 40 miles of channel on the Obion River and 14.1 miles on the Forked Deer River,” he writes. “It was a small undertaking for those who had mastered the mighty Mississippi, but for West Tennesseans, this 225-mile channelization project was one of the biggest things they had ever seen.” Mitigation As a result of the federal court action and by Act of Congress and a formal agreement between Gov. Ned McWherter and the Corps of Engineers, thousands of acres of property damaged by the WTTP was purchased by the government, of which 13,000 acres were acquired by TWRA. The 860-acre Black Swamp wetland was part of those 13,000 acres. “We felt Black Swamp was a great project,” Fox said. “It did things for wildlife. It did things for the people of Tennessee, it did things for hunters in an area where water resource is greatly limited. The greatest thing it did was, it fulfilled what federal courts ordered done on that piece of property. That land was purchased for the purpose of mitigating for the losses created by the Corps (channelization). It was given to TWRA by the federal government to recreate the water systems that were there but were destroyed by the Corps. The swamp was there and it contained water, but the Corps came in and drained it. What we were trying to do was recreate some of the values that were there before it was destroyed by the Corps.” Opposition Johnson and Chester McConnell of Daphne, Ala., also a TWRA veteran, vehemently opposed the Black Swamp project. They said they expressed themselves to TWRA. “We told them, ‘Don’t do it. We’ll show you why,’” Johnson said. “It’s disappointing they went ahead and did it. Now they’ve got to take it down.” McConnell said Black Swamp should be left in its natural state. “It’s the prettiest wetland I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s got the biggest, beautiful trees in it. When you go into that swamp, there’s so many big cypress trees, it’s like you’re in the big redwoods in California. I approve of what EPA did. I did everything I could to get them to do it.” And that includes contacting the U.S. Corps of Engineers? “Yes. Randy Clark in the regulatory branch,” he said. “They knew about it before I contacted them.” Thursday, Clark confirmed several complaints were received, prompting the Corps to notify EPA of a possible violation by TWRA at Black Swamp. Published in The Messenger 10.17.08

Leave a Comment