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Despite cease-and-desist order, construction on controversial mine has continued

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Posted at 7:27 AM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-22 08:27:23-05

HUMPHREYS COUNTY, Tenn. (WTVF) — A plan to build a sand and gravel mine on the banks of the Duck River has dug up controversy instead, as people who live nearby worry about the site's impact on the river.

The quarry is being built by Volunteer Sand and Gravel, who announced plans to build the mine in Humphreys County near State Route 13.

The proposal quickly caused concern among environmental groups and people living near the site. The mine site is on the banks of the Duck River, and sits entirely within the 100-year floodplain. The stretch of the Duck River in Humphreys County has flooded 27 times since 2017.

"It's really not predictable," Maegan Gordon said. Gordon's family farm is down the road from the mine, and she said she has watched the river move out of its banks more times than she can count.

"There were times I wouldn't be able to go to school for maybe a week or two due to flooding," she said.

Now she worries those floodwaters could sweep debris and sediment from the mine into the river.

"It's frankly terrifying to locals," Gordon said.

"The river teems with life, and it really breaks my heart to imagine all that life being smothered in the event of a dam failure," Amanda Garcia, the head of the Southern Environmental Law Center's Nashville office, said.

The Duck River is listed as one of the state's "exceptional waters" and has even been featured in National Geographic because of if its rich biodiversity. The waterway is also a popular place for paddlers and fishermen.

Garcia said in a worst case scenario, major flooding could cause sediment and debris from the mine to reroute the river itself.

"In the worst case scenario, those dirt berms that hold the pit back from the river could collapse or give way and that would release a ton of sediment into the river... the river could actually change course," Garcia explained. "We can't let a mining company’s interest in making a few bucks outweigh our collective public interest."

A "Willful Violation" of Regulations

Those environmental concerns would normally be investigated during a permitting process, but Volunteer Sand and Gravel is building the mine without a key permit.

Since the entire mine would fall within the Duck River's 100-year floodplain, the company needs to receive a permit from the TVA. In October, Volunteer Sand and Gravel withdrew its application for the permit. Two months later, the TVA sent a cease-and-desist order to the company after the federal agency received reports of continued construction.

The order, which was obtained by NewsChannel 5, directs Volunteer Sand and Gravel to immediately stop work on the site.

"You are hereby directed to immediately cease and desist from your unauthorized construction," TVA West Region Manager Nicholas Morris wrote. "Until a complete review of plans and impacted resources is conducted by TVA, unauthorized construction and activity on the property places you in significant legal jeopardy."

Morris also called any continued construction a "willful violation" of TVA regulations.

However, in early February, NewsChannel 5 cameras caught work happening on the mine site. Despite the violations, the TVA said it doesn't have the authority to force construction to stop.

"TVA has notified VSG (Volunteer Sand and Gravel) in writing on two occasions to cease and desist the operation pending another permit application. TVA does not have authority to force the work to stop, but will continue to pursue permit compliance using available options through our process," A TVA spokesperson said in a statement.

Garcia worries the lack of enforcement will send the wrong message to other mining companies, and is now urging the TVA to take the company to court.

"It's not just about this mine, what happens when the next mine refuses to get a permit?" Garcia said. "Is TVA going to continue to turn a blind eye?"

Volunteer Sand and Gravel's Response

Volunteer Sand and Gravel declined to do an interview with NewsChannel 5 or answer our questions about the Duck River mine. Instead, the company provided a statement about the project.

As a family-owned, Middle Tennessee small business, VSG will provide natural sand and gravel to local governments and private construction operators. We have worked closely with the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation to fulfill all permitting requirements necessary to begin operations. As a proud, new member of the Humphreys County community, we are bringing needed new jobs and adding millions in new tax revenue for schools, law enforcement and local services.

VSG has worked with both TDEC and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to secure the necessary permits to begin mining. The permitting process included both site visits and public hearings. According to Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation reports, the current agricultural site produces heavy soil runoff, sending large amounts of soil, herbicide, and pesticide poison into the Duck River. Under the previous agricultural use, the property lost 119 tons of soil each year, harming water quality for fish and wildlife. Under the current use, Volunteer will reduce the soil loss by 74%. Any future loss will consist of natural products such as sand and gravel as opposed to herbicide and pesticide-contaminated dirt which should improve the water quality in the Duck River.

Volunteer Sand & Gravel’s new mine is located on private property adjacent to the Duck River. The project will not impact navigation. A flood study performed by Gresham Smith, a national engineering consulting firm, concluded the project has no flooding impact to area.