Tennessee's $150 million effort to attract an auto plant to West Tennessee is drawing questions from environmentalists, who fear the effort could harm one of the Southeast's least-spoiled rivers.
Tennessee and local officials support a plan to dump as much as a billion gallons of wastewater a year -- laced perhaps with heavy metals such as lead and zinc -- into the Hatchie River, right on the edge of a national wildlife refuge.
Despite broad assurances from elected officials and others that the risk to the river has been minimized, the proposal has drawn scrutiny from federal and state wildlife officials, as well as The Nature Conservancy, the national nonprofit organization that specializes in protecting endangered habitats.
They note that the scenic, slow-moving river is the only feeder of the Lower Mississippi to run along the same banks Chickasaw Indians saw when they gave the Hatchie its name. The river's muddy waters still teem with species of catfish, crayfish and freshwater mussels -- at least one of them endangered.
The waste would come from the Memphis Regional Megasite, a 3,840-acre industrial park under construction next to Interstate 40 between Jackson and Memphis. Local and state officials believe this site could eventually attract an American or international automaker looking to expand in the South, much as Volkswagen chose to build on a similar site outside Chattanooga six years ago.
Supporters, including many local officials and members of Gov. Bill Haslam's administration, say the risk of pollution is small, while the benefits of bringing a major manufacturer to one of the state's poorest regions could be enormous.
Unemployment in much of the area exceeds 10 percent. An automaker and associated suppliers could inject thousands of jobs into West Tennessee.
"This will be good for the quality of life," said state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.
The wastewater proposal, which is up for public comment, calls for mixing industrial sewage from the megasite with waste from Brownsville, a nearby town that already has permission to discharge some of its treated sewage in the Hatchie.
The plan would involve connecting the megasite to Brownsville through a new, 15-mile pressurized sewer main, part of which would burrow under the Hatchie itself. The state also would build new lagoons to hold industrial wastewater on the megasite and a new sewage treatment plant for the Brownsville Energy Authority, which would operate the system.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has issued a draft permit to allow the discharges. Regulators say the pollution levels allowed would fall far short of those that would be harmful. Some supporters argue that the project actually would make the river cleaner by reducing the amount of pollution coming from Brownsville.
But skeptics, including some local landowners who have opposed the megasite from the outset, say the state has few assurances manufacturers will hold to pollution limits once the sewer system is built. They also say authorities have gone back on promises that waste from the megasite would be routed to a different waterway, the already polluted South Fork of the Forked Deer River, which passes north of Brownsville.
They especially worry that, even if the project works as it should, the metals typically found in auto industry wastewater will build up in the Hatchie and poison wildlife.
Nick Crafton, a Memphis environmental consultant and chemical engineer whose family has farmed the area for generations, said authorities, in their zeal to develop the megasite, may be underestimating how much pollution the project will create.
He and others want authorities to file with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a rigorous and exhaustive study, known as an environmental impact statement, that would detail the potential effects on wildlife, plants, water and neighboring communities.
"Industrial waste is of a different character," he said. "We need to know for the next 10 miles downstream ... the wildlife that will be affected."
Tennessee has few rivers like the Hatchie. More than 200 miles long, it flows at a walking pace from northern Mississippi through southwestern Tennessee. Floods frequently block off bends with silt or debris, forming oxbow lakes that flank the river for miles along its banks. Mud on the trunks of bald cypress trees shows the highwater marks.
From the southern tip of Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, the Hatchie is the only tributary of the Mississippi that has not been rerouted by manmade channels and levees. In 1968, the state named it a "scenic river," a designation that is meant to give it special environmental protection. The sheepnose, an endangered freshwater mollusk, lives in its mud.
The proposed permit would let an automaker dispose of as much as 3 million gallons a day of wastewater in the Hatchie, potentially containing an array of metals: cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, zinc and two forms of chromium, III and VI. These metals can persist in rivers, particularly slow-moving ones, where they are absorbed into the food chain.
TDEC believes the concentrations would be less than 5 percent of the river's "capacity" -- the amount of pollution it can absorb safely. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, however, has concerns. In a March 27 letter, the organization cites testing that suggests the levels allowed by TDEC would harm river life.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raises similar fears, noting also that wastewater would be discharged within the borders of the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge, one of two refuges the river passes through.
And The Nature Conservancy has worries, pointing out that the state wants to issue a permit before it knows exactly what would be built on the megasite. The organization calls this a "potentially negative precedent" for future proposals.
But Clint Brewer, a spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development, says the permit would allow only an auto plant on the site. Any other industry would have to apply for a new permit with TDEC.
That automaker could build a plant in just 18 months if the wastewater system and other utilities are completed in advance, a short timetable that would help the state land a manufacturer. But that automaker would have to follow all state and federal environmental laws, he added.