One of Tennessee’s Most Pristine Rivers Contaminated with Prison Sewage
by Panagioti Tsolkas
It's a rare case when one state agency penalizes another with more than a slap on the wrist. This year, in a move that surprised local environmentalists, Tennessee joined the growing list of states where environmental agencies have imposed fines against prisons for chronic water quality violations.
When asked about the successful legal complaint that her organization filed, Renee Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN), responded, “I’m surprised because it’s hard for the state to enforce on itself, and they don’t like to do that.”
In April 2017, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) fined the state’s Department of Correction more than two years after TCWN filed a lawsuit over repeated sewage spills at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. The years of well-documented pollution led to almost half-a-million dollars in fines against the state’s prison system.
The facility, located in Lauderdale County, was contaminating the Hatchie River – a waterway that was called “the most scenic and unspoiled in West Tennessee” in a recent USA Today news report about the incident.
But West Tennessee wasn’t the only prison where TDEC found problems. The agency also cited sewage-related issues at the Bledsoe Correctional Complex, just north of Chattanooga. Both facilities were also found guilty of multiple violations associated with their drinking water plants, as water quality reports showed high levels of inorganic compounds including excessive trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids and other contaminants. TDEC issued an order that levied $457,806 in combined fines against the Department of Correction.
According to the order, over 200 pollution-discharge violations at West Tennessee were recorded from June 2013 to May 2014. Additionally, critical components of the wastewater system were found to not be operating. Sixty-four more violations were documented between 2014 and 2016, including excessive levels of E. coli bacteria.
The Hatchie River, where the polluted prison sewage was being discharged, is among the longest free-flowing rivers in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Along with providing habitat for multiple protected endangered species, the river itself is also designated for protection by the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Program.
The Bledsoe County prison’s violations included wastewater-treatment plant discharges into a tributary of the Caney Fork River, which is a stream used by local residents for recreation. During 2014 and 2016, the Bledsoe facility reported 85 wastewater violations resulting from excessive pollutants, as well as oil and grease.
The problems at the West Tennessee and Bledsoe prisons affirm the position of HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project – that correctional facilities are environmentally unfriendly.
Sources: Commercial Appeal, USA Today