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New Report Blasts State Environmental Agency

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Alice Hooker Alice Hooker
Paul Sloan, TDEC's deputy commissioner Paul Sloan, TDEC's deputy commissioner
Renee Hoyos, Tennessee Clean Water Network Renee Hoyos, Tennessee Clean Water Network

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter
 

It's the state agency that's supposed to protect the environment and punish polluters. 

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) can stop construction projects and impose fines. 

But a new report obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates raises questions about whether the agency does enough to protect Tennessee's rivers and streams. 

Alice Hooker couldn't believe what was happening to her property. 

"It was damaged all the way down," said Hooker as she looked through old pictures. 

Back in 2005, developers cleared some land beside hers to build a subdivision. During the first major rainfall, massive amounts of mud flowed into her pond and the Harpeth River. Hooker called TDEC for help.  

"I thought it was TDEC's job to say 'fix it,' and go them and say 'how are you going to fix it?'" said Hooker. 

She said TDEC didn't help. She took the developers to court herself and, three years later, received a settlement. 

"I don't think they hear you. They may be listening to the business side of the state," said Hooker. 

Her complaint mirrors findings in a report released by the non-profit Tennessee Clean Water Network. 

"I don't think there's a lot of will to enforce," said Executive Director Renee Hoyos. 

The newly released report said TDEC's water pollution control enforcement is uneven and weak. 

"We're raising a generation of children that have come to expect polluted water," said Hoyos. 

The report found TDEC's Water Pollution Control Division did not hand out enforcement actions in more than a third of Tennessee's counties in 2008. When it did impose fines, major penalties were often forgiven. 

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked TDEC's deputy commissioner, "Do you feel like this department holds polluters accountable?" 

"Absolutely," said Paul Sloan. "Absolutely." 

Sloan said the department conducted more than 4,000 inspections last year, and the report does not include ongoing actions in those counties from past years. 

"I suspect there's been activity in pretty much every county that we're in, maybe local enforcement," said Sloan. 

The report claims the division assessed more than $3 million in fines in 2008, but collected far less than a third of that amount just over $733,000 up front. 

"A small fine really doesn't deter future behavior," said Hoyos. "If you don't think you're going to get punished you're more likely to behave badly." 

TDEC counters that the fines increase if the company does not repair the environmental damage. 

Part of the report's goal is to counter claims from some lawmakers who claim TDEC is too aggressive.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is running for governor, recently said TDEC is "out of control." 

"I feel like there are times we're had overzealous TDEC officials that come out and scare people to death with fines instead of working with them," said Ramsey. 

"When you have the far right that says you're out of control, you're over regulating, and on the other hand, the other extreme says you're not doing enough, we're probably doing a pretty good job of balancing," said Sloan. 

Alice Hooker didn't see that "balance."  

"I don't see that they're stepping up to their responsibilities," said Hooker. 

TDEC said developers did not manage the project near Ms. Hooker well, but it was the county's responsibility. Hooker said people shouldn't have to hire lawyers to stop polluters. 

"If it was going to be up to them nothing was going to happen, and that became so obvious," said Hooker. 

TDEC has lost 300 positions in the last five years because of budget cuts. The department said it has enough inspectors to protect the 60,000 miles of rivers and streams in Tennessee. 

E-mail: bhall@newschannel5.com

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