The Activist: Chris Irwin

Chris Irwin talks like a criminal defense lawyer. He speaks clearly and quickly, and just a bit louder than is strictly necessary, like he's trying to win you over. And, of course, he talks like a criminal defense lawyer because that's his day job.

"Yep. Guns and drugs, that's me," he says.

When he's off the clock, though, and interwoven throughout his daily work schedule (and, really, whenever he gets a second), he's the staff attorney for United Mountain Defense, the muckraking enviro-watchdog group that's been taking TVA to task since the Dec. 22 spill.

Irwin's role since the spill has been to deal with the logistical and public relations side of the group's actions. Unlike his field-work counterpart Matt Landon, who's earnest to a fault—he can be a little tougher to talk to—Irwin's been doing most of his work from his office in Knoxville. He runs interference with the media. He works the phones, arranging for the group's field samples to go to chemical analysis labs, first at Appalachian State University, now at Duke University. He also set up the first TVA- and media-free public meeting following the spill, bringing in Dr. Conrad Volz, a specialist in environmental health risk assessment from the University of Pittsburgh, who recommended that residents get medical screenings for heavy metals. The visit cost the group $500, Irwin says.

Then, he coordinated bringing a team of scientists in for medical screenings for residents, another $500 each, which the group is raising money for itself. The results for baseline arsenic testing for the residents who've gotten them should be in within the next few weeks, he says.

From the get-go, United Mountain Defense has had an adversarial position with the TVA. Indeed, even before this particular get-go, United Mountain defense was staunchly anti-coal. Irwin insists that the idea of "clean coal" is a fairy tale.

A Knoxville native—his grandfather was a lifelong TVA employee—Irwin was involved in watershed protection in West Africa (for the Peace Corps) and Northern California (for AmeriCorps). In his work with AmeriCorps, he participated in environmental preservation for Chinook salmon habitats.

"So I kind of have a science-geek background," he says. Which is how he came to be one of the founders of UMD, primarily an anti-strip mining group, but one full of such "science geeks" with backgrounds in water-quality testing. That made the TVA spill, which got into the Clinch and Emory Rivers, a natural project for the group.

"When the spill happened, all our field people unilaterally just went to it that day and began doing water testing," he says.

Irwin was out of town at the time, camping with his wife, Paloma Galindo, herself a watershed protection veteran involved in the clean-up of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. They didn't hear about it until days later.

"It was Christmas Eve. I walked back into my house, and we sat down and, stretched out, and said, ‘Oh, finally.'"

Then his and his wife's roommate told him what had happened. It's been busy.

"This goddamn thing," he says, pointing at his cellphone during a rare idle moment over a beer at the Preservation Pub. Then, with a tired but appreciative smile, he says, "[Landon's] calling me all the goddamn time."

Landon's been furiously taking video of everything he's been seeing and doing in Harriman since he got there the day after the spill. And Irwin's been posting them up, along with other environmentalist groups' press releases, on the group's blog, The group has nearly 30 videos up now.

When UMD heavy metals tests showed higher levels of arsenic and thallium than the TVA or TDEC was reporting, TVA officials accused them of "putting out misinformation" and "trying to alarm people."

"We are not neutral here," Irwin admits. "We're hostile to TVA."

But he takes issue with the characterization of the group as fearmongers, saying that the labs commissioned by UMD have been using EPA-approved screening methods to test for toxic substances around the site. Truth be told, "takes issue" doesn't really do justice to his reaction to those charges. He gets seriously pissed about it.

"How many homes have the environmentalists destroyed?" Irwin yells. "How much coal have they dumped onto these towns? And they point at the environmentalists as alarmists. I've got news for them: People out there are already alarmed."