“You hear that?” asks Terry Gupton, looking up in the sky at a TVA helicopter. “That’s all you could hear the first couple of days. It was like a war zone here.”
Gupton lives within shouting distance from the Smith home, but his life seems like a stark rural counterpoint to their near-suburban existence. Gupton and his wife Sandra run a 250-acre cattle farm on Swan Pond Circle, about 25 acres of which is now covered in sludge.
Gupton looks every bit the East Tennessee small-time farmer. He’s a big, 62-year-old man. Imagine a cross between W.C. Fields and Jimmy Carter, throw in a pair of tan Carhartt overalls and a winter hat, and you just about have him.
His ancient red barn stands about a half-mile in from Swan Pond Circle Road, separated by a moat from the Smith’s house and a seemingly abandoned circa-1970 ranch house.
“This is all flood,” he says, pointing at the new stream that cuts through his property, a side effect of the water displacement from the spill. “TVA’s had to come in twice now to raise up that road.”
The sludge comes up against his property to the south side of the barn, where he used to have a corn and hayfield, all rendered useless by the spill. He’s also had to bring his cows in closer to the center of the property since he’s lost a good deal of grazing land. The field is now filled with scores of dead fish, thankfully not rotting because of the temperature.
“It’s a good thing this didn’t happen during the summer,” he says. “Those fish would be getting pretty rank right about now.”
It’s also a good thing, he says, because the spill covered up a popular fishing spot. If it had happened during the summer, even as late as it was, it could have injured or killed those people, he says.
Before the spill, Gupton says his days were split between the farm and outside handiwork, doing fence and farm equipment repair for some of the adjoining farms in the area. But, he says, the spill has made it impossible to get any work done.
“Since this happened, I haven’t been able to do anything but look after what’s going on here,” he says. It’s particularly frustrating because, “You know, we like TVA. We like electricity, we like to have electricity. TVA’s always been there.”
Gupton, like Ron Smith, also went to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Harriman residents. Unlike Smith, though, he’s decided to participate in a $5 million class-action lawsuit, filed by environmental lawyer Gary Davis.
Part of the reason he says he’s participating in the suit is because of the potential impact the ash could have on his 100 beef cattle. Not only is he concerned about the potential effects of heavy metals in the soil and water—he’s switched the cows from spring to city water since the spill—but so are his customers; he sells to local consumers and to the commodity markets. Many of those customers have become reluctant to buy Swan Pond area cattle.
“That’s the first question they ask,” he says. “They ask how is this affecting your cattle.”
He says he hasn’t noticed any adverse health effects in the cattle from the spill, but he says he will get them tested if he does. He says he’s gotten himself screened for heavy metals.
“My wife’s in the medical profession. She’s a nurse. She’s very concerned about heavy metals,” he says.
Gupton comes by environmental activism a bit more naturally than his neighbor.
“I’m a soil conservationist by trade,” says Gupton. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil conservation service for 30 years, teaching farmers how to best use their water and soil resources, before retiring to work the farm full time. He still serves as the Roane County chapter vice president of the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts.
Gupton’s been living in the area for 38 years, purchasing the plots of land that make up his farm in 1999 for $300,000, according to county records. He’s also concerned that his property value has gone down, especially now that he’s thinking about selling the place.
“I really like living here. It was beautiful. I thought this was going to be the last place I’d be. It’s how I’ve made my living for the last 10 years,” he says. “It was good land. It was productive land. That’s why I picked it.”