citybeat (2006-40)


Maryville ups the ante as it imports restaurants and strives for an active downtown

Heavy Metal

Why one local steel mill’s reputation is up in the air

Wednesday, Sept. 27


Maryville is small in numbers, but its diversity is surprising. The population of Maryville hovers just above 25,000, with a growth rate of two percent a year. “The growth rate is not that high, it’s a little above average. What is interesting is that there’s an eclectic influx from the upper Midwest, Florida, even California,” Assistant City Manager Roger Campbell says.

What is bringing all of these people to Maryville, Tenn., of all places? City Councilman Ron Ivens notes that, “The crime rate is very, very low,” and Campbell adds, “The education system is drawing people. There’s a very high quality of life, the crime rate is low, the property value is high, there’s a great greenbelt system, it’s close to the airport and close to the mountains.” These are all things most interested in Maryville have heard before. 

Maryville is an easy choice for parents. Maryville’s public schools consistently rank well in Tennessee. It was voted the 9th-best place in the United States to retire by Your Money magazine, and was labeled one of “America’s Select Cities” by the National Strategy Group. Maryville also has one of the highest rates of high school graduates going on to college, and once kids do reach college age, they have the fairly prestigious—ranked No. 3 in the South last year by U.S. News —Maryville College right in their backyard. 

Interestingly, Maryville College students, while adding 1,100 to the population, often do not mingle with the local culture. Maryville graduate Roan Marion says, “The college is somewhat insular. I mean, the students do their own thing. The college is up there on the hill, sort of separated from everything. I think the geography is indicative of what is going on.” When asked about the Maryville social scene, Roan is a little reluctant to spread praise, saying, “We really liked to go to Waffle House, but it’s not even technically in Maryville. Sometimes we would go to Kay’s ice cream, but mostly you commute to Knoxville for your social life.”

The nightlife and music scene of Maryville is improving. The Palace, a downtown theater, advertises excellent live Bluegrass music several nights a week. The Brackins Blues Bar offers live music in a charmingly homey atmosphere, ranging from jazz to blues to acoustic singer/songwriter, almost every night. Every year Maryville hosts the Foothills Fall Festival (coming up October 13-15), showcasing top names in country and bluegrass. Sullivan’s Downtown stocks a full bar and restaurant, but while staff say the restaurant side of the business is booming, the bar side often lags behind. “Some residents would like to put a new local restaurant in downtown, maybe a nice wine and jazz place,” says Campbell.

Some young Maryville residents still seem quite content with their city. One young man, Scott Riddle, has lived in Maryville for seven years. He laments the lack of local rock music and good restaurants, but says, “I would much rather live in Maryville than Knoxville. Maryville is cleaner, safer, less crowded, and still close enough to Knoxville to go every once in a while.” Another young man has lived in Maryville all his life and says that he thinks “they’re trying to turn it into a new Knoxville.” New Knoxville, indeed. With former Knoxville-only staples, such as Tomato Head and Sunspot, making the move to Maryville, the question is begged: Will people still want to come to Knoxville? If Maryville is safer, quieter, cleaner, and has most of the amenities of big city living, isn’t Maryville the logical choice?

Maybe it will be, but it isn’t there yet. Maryville’s downtown, while growing like a 14 year-old boy, still has a long way to go in order to reach Knoxville proportions, and no one is even saying that it wants to emulate Knoxville. “No, no, no, we don’t want to be Knoxville. Maryville, I think, will maintain its own special identity. The community will continue to grow, but we hope to preserve its historical attributes. I want to make sure that we don’t become just another cookie-cutter city, and a lot of our citizens are of the same ilk. I think that you will see us evolve and keep our identity,” says Campbell.

And Maryville possesses a lot of qualities that its residents find appealing. As Don Ivens says, “It is a great place to live, and a great place to raise a family.”

Heavy Metal

Earlier this spring, United Steel Workers (USW) Environmental Projects Coordinator Diane Heminway was doing research on the environmental performance of Gerdau AmeriSteel and noticed discrepancies in its lead-emissions reports. Comments submitted by the USW note errors in calculations, data omissions, failure to include all emission sources, failures to use actual emission data, failure to evaluate the impact on public health, and the lack of standard permit conditions.

“It became apparent the Gerdau facilities in Tennessee had some of the most serious problems with air quality,” says Heminway. “We thought it important to assist in bringing the issues to the attention of the Knox area communities.”

They did. While the Gerdau facility was applying for a Title V operating permit to expand production by 17 percent, which would add over 100,000 tons of lead per year into the air, without adding additional pollution-control equipment, citizens in surrounding communities were organizing to raise awareness of such emissions and the health hazards they pose—especially lead.

The EPA has not yet established a safe level of airborne lead exposure. Effects on unborn and developing children include spontaneous abortion, premature birth, birth defects, low birth weight, reduced growth, decreased mental ability in infants, and learning disabilities. In the communities surrounding the mill, about 50 percent of residents are age 17 or younger and 12 percent are age five or younger. Overexposure to lead can also result in kidney and immune-system damage, hearing and memory loss, decreased reaction time, anemia and brain damage in adults. 

“Our primary objective is getting citizens involved with environmental stewardship and environmental justice,” says Umoja Abdul-Ahad, executive director of Project 2000 Inc., a local non-profit agency working for social justice. “They have to see themselves as being part of the solution.”

Required by law to conduct permitting hearings, the Knox County Department of Air Quality Management published a March 3, 2006 hearing notice in the paper regarding the Gerdau facility’s Title V application. Because few citizens were aware of the notice, they later petitioned the government to conduct another hearing, to be held within the community at a time when affected citizens could attend.

“When we began, we found out that citizens didn’t know what the permitting process was,” says Abdul-Ahad. “But as we organized around the second hearing, more people felt relaxed speaking out about the air quality in their communities.”

Steve McDaniel, environmental program manager for the Knox County Department of Air Quality Management, says his department is in the process of reviewing comments from the second hearing, held on May 11. At the hearing, several citizens voiced concerns about the visible sooty dust they’d observed outside their homes—on tables, playground equipment and garden vegetables—and questioned its impact on their health. “We will prepare a Proposed Title V Operating Permit and forward it, along with comments and our response to the comments to EPA Region IV for review,” says McDaniel.

Consensus has yet to be reached on what Gerdau’s annual lead emissions actually are. Arlan Piepho, Division Manager for Gerdau AmeriSteel in Knoxville, argues that “all testing of air quality at our facility was done in accordance to Knox County Air Board standards. The Air Quality Management team was even present at our facility during the testing.”

According to McDaniel, Gerdau applied for a construction permit before the non-attainment designations were effective, and therefore it is not required to follow the New Source Review rules now in effect, which requires expanding facilities to add pollution controls on all new constructions.

“Knox County Air Management Board has provided three different permit limits for how much lead Gerdau would be able to release annually,” says Heminway. “One source indicated the company would be allowed to emit five tons per year, the prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) permit stated the limit was 3.68 tons per year—and at the hearing, Engineer McDaniel with the Air Quality Board stated that the lead emissions would be limited to 2.84 tons, or 5,680 pounds, per year. This must be clarified.”

“Lead emissions at the facility are limited to five tons per year in the original permit. Actual emissions are estimated to be somewhat less,” says McDaniel.

The debate over accurate lead-emission standards is still up in the air. In the meantime, citizens are taking it upon themselves to discover how much lead exists in their communities.

Working with the USW, citizens near the Gerdau facility are literally dusting for emissions. Trained biologists, assisted by local youth, take samples of dust from residents’ homes to find out if they contain harmful heavy metals like lead, zinc or manganese.

“Residents have a responsibility to find out what’s going on in their communities,” says Abdul-Ahad. “They can become informed about why our air is so bad and do something about it. Our ‘Dust the Bust’ project is a catalyst for the people of Lonsdale, Beaumont and Mechanicsville to express and defend their right to breathe clean, healthy air and to hold corporate and public officials accountable for protecting the environment in all Knoxville communities.”


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