U.S. Water News Online
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Environmentalists are fighting plans
for a Cumberland Plateau wastewater treatment plant, saying it
threatens one of the largest and most biologically diverse cave
systems in the nation.
The opposing sides agree on two things: the cave system is worth
protecting and the town of Spencer, home to 1,713 residents 50 miles
north of Chattanooga, badly needs a sewage treatment plant.
They differ on whether the proposed plant will offer enough
protection for the fragile ecosystem of the caves lying on the
southeastern edge of the plateau.
The state Water Quality Control Board met to review its earlier
approval of a discharge permit that would allow up to 250,000 gallons
of treated sewage to flow into Dry Fork Creek in Van Buren County.
The review was prompted after environmentalists challenged the
board's process in granting the permit.
The extensive subterranean system known as Rumbling Falls Cave has
only recently been discovered and only partially explored, according
to Mike Hood, president of the National Speleological Society. Dry
Fork Creek flows through it.
``We're really excited about this cave,'' Hood said. ``The NSS is
not against the treatment facility. We agree that Spencer needs a
sewerage plant. What we don't want to see is discharge into the cave
Among the huge ``rooms'' in the cave is one of more than 5 acres
known as the Rumble Room. It lies within the boundaries of Fall Creek
Falls State Park.
Jerry Lewis, a biologist from the Louisville, Ky., area, said
preliminary explorations have found 24 subspecies of cave-dwelling
animals, including types of fish, crawfish and beetles.
``That puts it among the most biologically diverse in the United
States, and among the top 20 on the entire planet,'' Lewis said.
``This is an extraordinary cave system. It's an incredibly rich
community. It should be protected instead of making it into an outlet
Dry Fork Creek, as its name implies, is not much of a stream.
Environmentalists say the wastewater discharge would essentially
constitute the entire flow of the creek during the dry months.
The state water quality division contends the treated wastewater
would not be an environmental hazard.
``It is a wonderful cave system and we certainly applaud their
interest in protecting it,'' said Paul Davis, head of the Division of
Water Pollution Control for the state Department of Environment and
Conservation. ``The state has exactly the same interest. If the water
is clean enough then it's reasonable to presume it's protected.''
Lewis said he couldn't disagree more.
``This would poison it just as surely as if you put arsenic in
it,'' he said. ``It would have a devastating impact.''
Davis said the plant permit requires redundant systems, auxiliary
power and places limits on the type of wastewater that can go into
it, all in the interest of ensuring the wastewater will not damage
the cave system.
Will Callaway of the Tennessee Environmental Council said the
coalition has no argument with Spencer's need for a treatment plant.
He said the group has been trying to help the city get a grant for
the estimated $2 million it would take to discharge the wastewater
elsewhere and spare the cave system.
``We have not had the cooperation we need to get these dollars,''
he said. ``Spencer needs a treatment plant. We'll do everything we
can to help. We're trying to offer a solution.''
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