Bill Would Remove Some Tennessee Waterway Protections

Rep. McCord and Sen. Southerland want to muck up your right to clean water

Did you know Tennesseans have a right to unpolluted streams and rivers? Title 69 of state law says so, commanding the state to protect and restore waters.

The creator of Tennessee's mountains intended this as well. Upstream from development, creeks and streams are often clean enough to drink unfiltered. Life originated in the seas, but freshwater life likely evolved in our mountains. The first creature to fly may have fluttered on an Appalachian breeze 400 million years ago. Since then, our forests and streams have grown rich with life, and pristine water is the most valuable product of these ecosystems.

In many parts of the world, clean water is scarce, yet here it is as common as a good swimming hole. The value of our water is enshrined in Tennessee law, yet State Representative Joe McCord of Blount County wants to erode your rights. He is the House sponsor of a suite of bills that weaken water-quality laws. Every change he proposes benefits polluters.

Last week, a resolution before Knoxville City Council asked state legislators to defeat McCord's bills and a few others also favoring polluters. The resolution was postponed until next week because it listed the bills only by number, and several members were unsure what they were voting on. They can rest assured that each bill on the list is an affront to our right to clean water.

The main beneficiary of McCord's bills would be the coal industry. Tennessee's coal reserves are modest and of low quality, and mountaintop-removal mining is the primary method for accessing this coal. Such mines employ far fewer people than underground mines and leave scars on the landscape. There is no coal mining in McCord's district, and he should withdraw his bills and apologize to constituents for placing personal interests above their rights. Likewise, Senate sponsor Steve Southerland of coal-free Hamblen County is acting not as a representative of citizens, but as a career politician who serves lobbyists.

Their two most insidious bills would remove protections from the smallest waterways. Very little rain falls directly into streams and rivers. Most enters our waters after passing through soil, with the rest passing through conveyances like those defined in these bills. Exempting them from protection will increase pollution in the more substantial and permanent waterways they feed. Another bill says impaired waters can not also be classified as exceptional, weakening efforts to restore remnant populations of fish, mussels and other aquatic life in rivers.

House Bill 1615 calls for "scientifically based principles" for recognizing temporary waterways, yet it excludes the most reliable scientific method, identification of aquatic plants in a channel. Plants like cresses and horsetails grow only in saturated and inundated soils, but the bill calls for methods that geologists and engineers without biological training can use. Coal companies and land developers work closely with geologists and engineers and could expect more favorable decisions with botanists cut out of the permitting process.

McCord's bills are poorly researched. One calls for state agencies to prove any unnamed stream involved in a pollution complaint is not a "wet-weather conveyance." Naming of streams is a cultural process unrelated to hydrology, and even streams that flow year round can be nameless. This thoughtless provision could add significant burdens to agencies already perpetually overworked and underfunded.

Remaining bills included in the City Council resolution forbid the state from responding to anonymous complaints, allow polluters to use delays to evade challenges, impede the state's ability to respond to court orders, eliminate state water and air standards that exceed federal limits, ease restrictions on feedlots and allow permit holders to increase water withdrawals without public notice. These bills violate our natural heritage and the spirit of the law.