Environmental group files administrative lawsuit over bacteria growth in a Dickson County creek

Dickson County's Trace Creek
Posted at 4:44 PM, Mar 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-17 22:18:24-04

WHITE BLUFF, Tenn. (WTVF) — An environmental advocacy group is filing an administrative lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, over a ruling involving bacteria and algae growing in a Dickson County creek.

NewsChannel 5 first reported environmental concerns in Dickson County's Trace Creek last November.

Down at the edge of Liz Smith's property, should be a slice of paradise. Trace Creek, with several small waterfalls, flows through part of her White Bluff property.

"This is where my family goes. My children, my grandchildren," said Smith. "We grew up around creeks."

But instead, she's found something putrid, just down from an outfall belonging to the White Bluff Wastewater Treatment plant.

"This is a disaster," said Smith. "You’ll see this white, stringy stuff. Thank goodness my grandkids didn’t see it because they’d start playing with it."

When NewsChannel 5 went out to the creek on Friday, March 17th, we were told we were catching Trace Creek on a pretty good day, considering the temperatures were cool and some recent rain may have flushed some of the bacteria away.

But then we were shown pictures from some of the days when the bacteria is at its worst.

"We were like holy cow to be honest," said Dorie Bolze, President and CEO of the Harpeth Conservancy, an environmental protection group.

Bolze knew from just looking at some of the pictures, the bacteria was likely something commonly called sewage fungus.

"It’s confirmed that’s it’s certain types of algae and certain types of bacteria that really go to town when there’s a lot of processed sewage in the water," said Bolze. "It’s not supposed to have visible scum, not supposed to have the wrong appearance."

Finding that kind of bacteria would be concerning in any body of water, but especially given where the water flows.

"That pollution load comes straight into the Harpeth River State Park," she said.

So along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Harpeth Conservancy sent the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation a letter, asking them to look into it.

SELC's attorney, George Nolan, says the state found similar test samples.

"The department of health confirmed that that material is sewage-loving bacteria and algae scum," said the senior attorney for SELC.

But then came a surprise. TDEC wrote backexplaining that even though they found similar bacteria, the complaint fails to "demonstrate a violation of the permit."

"We were shocked the State took the position, there is no pollution, there’s no permit violation, and there’s no problem," said Nolan.

"To us it was like wow — this is really shocking and quite frankly, not a hard thing to fix," said Bolze.

So now, both environmental groups have filed and administrative lawsuit, hoping a state board could choose to intervene.

"Why would they even tolerate this sort of thing, if there’s a solution?" asked Liz Smith, the homeowner near the outfall.

Smith says what should be her little slice of paradise is now officially off-limits unless the state forces some big changes.

"If this continues to happen, it’s going to get worse and the next generation’s — they might as well put a sign down there by the bridge that says — don’t enter the water — it’s polluted," said Smith.

TDEC declined to comment on this story, but referred us back to the letter they sent the SELC and Harpeth Conservancy that explains their ruling.

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