“I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. There’s nothing as beautiful as my home.” This is a heartwarming, but perhaps obligatory, thing for Harriman Mayor Chris Mason to say, especially to the press. On the other hand, he has lived there all his life, save a few years while getting his degree from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. He’s a local business owner—running an AT&T wireless franchise—and he did decide to run for mayor, and won. Plus, he’s frank in his criticism of TVA, even though it’s one of the town’s largest employers.
“This was negligence on their part. They screwed up, and they’re going to have to fix it,” says Mason, who lives about five miles from the spill. He says he was informed of the accident by his city clerk, Arin Arriola—who lives near the site-—in the middle of the night.
“She told me what happened, or what she thought had happened,” he says, but like everyone else, he didn’t know how bad it was until he got to see it in the light of day. “I did a flyover a day or two later. My initial thoughts were, it’s a catastrophe. I just thank God that it happened—if it had to happen—at 1:30 in the morning on the coldest night of the year, just so nobody was injured or killed.”
Mason, as mayor of a pretty small town, only spends about three or so hours a day, after closing up shop, doing his civic work. The spill, of course, is taking over all of that time, he says.
“That’s what makes it tough,” he says. “We’re trying to get some other stuff, some city projects done, and this just has to take precedence.”
A major part of that job seems to be to calm people down. He points to the involvement of TDEC, which he sees as a neutral third-party making sure that TVA is doing the clean-up right.
“TDEC is who I’m listening to,” he says. “They don’t have a dog in the race other than making sure that everyone’s all right.”
But then there are long-term concerns for the city. At one public meeting, for example, a resident asked whether city property taxes would go down as a result of the inevitable drop in area home prices. Mason told the resident that they would have to wait for properties to start selling before they could determine if there had been a real change in the market.
The whole room erupted in laughter.
“TVA’s making offers, you know, to buy these houses,” he says. “They’re gonna give people fair prices.”
As in what the houses were worth before the spill, residents hope. But some still don’t buy it, and they’ve been calling and e-mailing the city offices to express that skepticism and frustration. And, of course, there has been the endless series of meetings, where Mason’s often been forced to play referee between the raging Harriman residents and TVA officials.
“As mayor, you’ve gotta step back and understand where these people are coming from,” he says. “I know how ticked off they are. I know how scared they are. We’re going to make sure this is done right.”
Ultimately, making sure they do it right, he says, may have to involve re-thinking how coal waste is stored in his town.
“I was just driving by there this morning, and I was wondering why wouldn’t it have been easier to dig a 60-foot hole in the ground and put it in there with a liner, rather than stack it high,” Mason says. “They’re going to look at different things. Myself, I’m looking at putting solar panels on my house.”