Environmental journalist group event goes on in Chattanooga despite gridlock

photo The lights of the Tennessee Aquarium and downtown Chattanooga reflect in the Tennessee River during dusk.

A government shutdown and a few canceled speakers were not enough to keep several hundred journalists from across the nation from convening at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

The Society of Environmental Journalists' 23rd annual convention kicked off Wednesday with very few hitches, according to conference director Jay Letto.

The SEJ first came to Chattanooga in 1998 in the midst of a movement to clean up the city's industrial, dirty past.

This is the first time the SEJ has returned to a city for a conference.

Turmoil in Washington kept a few key speakers from the convention's opening reception Wednesday, but the rest of the week's events are relatively unchanged, he said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Forestry Chief Tom Tidwell, who were set to speak at the reception, did not make it, but Corker and Jewell sent recorded messages for the convention.

Corker welcomed participants to the convention from two large screens posted at the reception. He hailed Chattanooga as one of the best places in the nation for outdoor activity and said the city's environmental turnaround was years in the making.

SEJ members also heard from Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, former Mayor Ron Littlefield and University of Tennessee Chattanooga Chancellor Steve Angle.

Littlefield shared personal experiences about the city's polluted past and praised the changes that have been made over the last four decades.

"Chattanooga is the right place for this conference, it's the right place at this time," Littlefield said. "Chattanooga is in fact the most transformed city in America and one of the most transformed cities in the world."

Berke said Chattanooga's environmental history was one of the motivators to turn the city around in the 1990s, and the effort is still going strong.

Citing smarter, greener infrastructure and energy efficient designs, Berke said he wants to see Chattanooga continue getting cleaner.

"We understand where we are in our story, but there are still places that we have to go," Berke said. "Our city is committed to know that this is neighborhood by neighborhood citywide."

Several tours at federal sites were unimpeded by the shutdown, Letto said.

Convention participants are set to tour the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil and Sequoyah Nuclear plants and snorkel the Conasauga River.

"Anna George at the Tennessee Aquarium worked some magic for us and was able to get us some wet suits. So were are going to the Conasauga. The Conasauga River [tour] was most in jeopardy because it was on U.S. Forest Service property, so there were some public access issues. But all the tours are still on," Letto said.

Chattanooga Times Free Press President Jason Taylor welcomed SEJ member back to the Scenic City.

"We honored to have the Society of Environmental Journalists back in our community," Taylor said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com.