A Marion County, Tenn., resident is worried that rubble she saw being pushed off a barge last week into the Tennessee River during demolition of the old U.S. Highway 41 bridge is polluting the water.
Stephanie Mathews' photos appear to show a large excavator sitting on a barge last Wednesday with a bucket or jackhammer attachment working beside one of the old bridge's piers. In a couple of the photos, the equipment appears to be knocking debris from the barge into the water.
Mathews, 28, was spending an afternoon on Nickajack Lake with her father, who has worked in construction for 40 years and was a little concerned about steel in the debris, she said. Mathews filed a report with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just to make sure they were aware of the activity.
"We were on our boat," Mathews said. "We drove up probably 30 yards from those guys."
Mathews, a lifelong Marion County resident and Nickajack Lake user, is worried the 86-year-old bridge's concrete and rebar could pose pollution problems for aquatic wildlife and people whose drinking water comes from the Tennessee River downstream of the bridge replacement project.
But project contractor Britton Bridge LLC has permission to "leave demolition debris [concrete and reinforcing steel] from the piers in the lake as long as it is piled below a specified elevation," Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said.
"The water near these piers is nearly 80 feet deep, and only a small portion of that depth is necessary for navigation," Flynn said.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials say dumping anything in state waterways is generally prohibited unless specifically addressed under state guidelines.
"Activities that might disturb the ecology or structure of a body of water typically require permitting," TDEC spokesman Eric Ward said in an emailed response.
TDEC issued an aquatic resource alteration general permit as well as a construction storm water permit for the bridge replacement project, according to officials.
"A demolition plan is also included in the application for the [general permit]," Ward said.
Similar work takes place under such permits all over the state, officials said.
"This is not something new. There are old bridges, dams, buildings, etc., under the lakes throughout Tennessee," Flynn said. "Also, in comparison to the vast volume of area available for water storage and flood control, the area occupied by this debris is only a small drop in a very large bucket."
Flynn provided recent state photos of the site that she said show rubble piled up to be moved to the river bank and hauled away.
"Some small pieces are getting in the water but a majority of it is being caught and taken to the bank," Flynn said of the photographs. "Notice that there is no discoloration of the water around the pier and barges."
Mathews said her main concern is pollution in her favorite stretch of the river.
"I've spent every summer on Nickajack. That's our spot; it's what we love. Just because they're within their legal rights doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do," Mathews said. "It's really a big deal what they do with our rivers."
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