SOCM members in the Maury County Chapter continue their campaign for clean water and affordable utility bills in the town of Mt. Pleasant. Since SOCM members and Mt. Pleasant residents presented 100+ official water quality complaint forms to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) during a Valentine’s Day action at the Columbia field office, the situation in Mt. Pleasant has heated up considerably. In a May 29th meeting at the TDEC office in Columbia, Sherwin Smith, then-Deputy Director of TDEC’s Division of Water Resources warned SOCM members “…you need to make sure that when you make water quality complaints you have a basis, because federally, if there’s no water quality issues, that can be considered under Homeland Security an act of terrorism.” Members saw this as a clear intimidation tactic and went on the offensive. They released the audio recording of the meeting to the media where it was covered by every major network in Middle Tennessee and even the Associated Press, USA Today and The Huffington Post.
In the public relations nightmare that followed, TDEC demoted Mr. Smith and released several conflicting official statements about how they followed up with residents that filled out the water quality complaint forms. As the report shows, most of the people that TDEC talked to said they don’t drink the water and that it often has a funny smell or taste. However, because they reported that it looked ok on the day they were called, the report indicates “no problems today” and they were not offered testing. TDEC also took along a reporter from the local Columbia Daily Herald to do test that water at 11 sites in Mt. Pleasant for E. coli and coliform. Members felt testing for just these two things does not make the water “safe.”
In addition to questionable water quality, Mt. Pleasant residents recently learned that the EPA is investigating lead and arsenic contamination in and around the site of a company that blew rock-wool insulation at their operation in the middle of town in the early 1970s. EPA officials began soil sampling and testing this spring in the neighborhoods around the old Industrial Products Company (IPC) site at 107 Boswell St. in Mt. Pleasant. And the EPA’s Chuck Berry led a community meeting on April 11th at the City Hall in Mt. Pleasant, informing residents and city and state officials that a report on the investigation will be issued in mid-June at a similar meeting.
The news of lead contamination in their neighborhood has left local residents reeling as they wonder what their families have been exposed to over the years and what will become of their affected properties. EPA officials are focusing their ongoing testing and analysis on the area within a ½ mile radius of the IPC site, which includes the homes and property of most of SOCM’s members in Mt. Pleasant. Members thanked the EPA for initiating its investigation and holding a public meeting on it, and requested that it look into the other problems uncovered in SOCM’s year and a half of research and organizing in Mt. Pleasant. The lead contamination development highlights the ways in which residents there are bearing all of the economic burden and uncertainty, in addition to the health concerns presented. The situation is especially troubling for people in the immediate area of the IPC site who now must consider the implications of their property being contaminated by toxins.
SOCM members had Mt. Pleasant City Manager Michelle Williams on the agenda for the March meeting of the Maury County Chapter. Williams backed out of her scheduled appearance at the meeting, saying she felt it would be “an attack.” She instead directed SOCM members to an April 25th Town Hall Meeting on Public Utilities, hosted by the city and the Chamber of Commerce at the Community Center in Mt. Pleasant.
At the Town Hall Meeting, despite a 45-minute opening presentation by city officials, SOCM member Mike Cannon took the microphone after a long wait to say, “The only thing I got out of this meeting is that we’ve got 15 more years of imprisonment to bills I can’t afford.” SOCM member Joycelene Johns argued for taking some of the burden off the people of the town, noting that passing expenses on to residents “is not smart, because people are moving out.” Mt. Pleasant City Manager Williams was apologetic, but asserted “the city is a business.” Johns responded that businesses should not be privileged over the residents of the town.
SOCM member Cochita Watkins questioned officials at the Town Hall about when lower sewer rates could be expected, and whether the city had searched exhaustively for grant funding. Public Works Director Bobby Nutt repeatedly said that sewer rates might go down in 15 years when the city expects to finish paying off its massive $8 million dollar water/sewer debt. Nutt and Williams conditioned the lowering of those rates on the city’s repayment of its massive debt and on “economic growth” in Mt. Pleasant.
City officials maintained that Mt. Pleasant’s drinking water is some of the best in Tennessee. At the same time, they pointed to the pending construction of a new water treatment plant, saying “safer and better” water is on the way. Local residents who filed formal water quality complaints with TDEC in February reiterated those complaints at the Town Hall, only to receive the circular response that they should call and complain.