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Tennessee community fights to save ‘exceptional’ creek

PRIMM SPRINGS, Tenn. — Greg Deen and his family have been farming along Lick Creek in Middle Tennessee since shortly after the Civil War. The children of Vange Johnson’s large extended family were baptized in the stream. Bea and Neil Jobe, now in their eighties, no longer grow tobacco irrigated with water from a stream, but still get their drinking water from a nearby well.

Their Hickman County homes and farms lie just beyond Nashville’s sprawling bedroom communities, but the city’s rapid growth is beginning to be felt here. In early January, a small sign appeared on the side of the freeway indicating that a nearby county utility was planning to use its creek to dump sewage from a new sewage treatment plant. The utility says the plant is needed to support development and create jobs. Residents fear the project will destroy aquatic life; contaminate wells, springs and crops; and increase flooding.

“In Hickman County, one of the main resources is water – good, clean water,” said Mike Weesner. His 255-acre (103-hectare) horse boarding farm stretches along 3/4 miles of Lick Creek. “The fishing is excellent. The water is excellent. I wouldn’t be afraid to drink it now,” he said.

The rural county of just under 25,000 people prides itself on its natural beauty and promotes outdoor tourism, especially fishing and boating in its rivers and streams. Lick Creek is designated the state’s “Outstanding Water” and empties directly into the Duck River, considered the most biodiverse river in North America.

Water treatment plants primarily remove solid wastes and nutrients – like nitrogen and phosphorus – and kill bacteria, but they are generally not designed to remove other potentially harmful substances like chemicals, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals.

The Dickson County Water Authority already operates three wastewater treatment plants in the rapidly growing counties of Dickson and Williamson, just outside of Nashville. These plants are nearing capacity and the waterways they discharge into are “effluent dominated” so they are unlikely to be approved for more wastewater, according to an engineering report. A new Hickman plant would release up to 12 million gallons of sewage per day into Lick Creek, which has a low flow of less than 9 million gallons per day. The vast majority of sewage would come from surrounding counties.

“This is not an attempt to spur development. It’s an attempt to use us as a cheap dump,” County Commissioner Austin Page said at a recent community meeting.

Neighbors banded together to shut down the plant under the Friends of Lick Creek banner. Rodes Hart, one of the executives, said he thought the utility was hoping to get the project approved before most people were aware of it.

“They wanted to throw it down the throats of the poor people of Hickman County,” Hart said. “It can be extremely difficult to stop something like this once a permit project is approved.”

The Dickson County Water Authority did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

Lick Creek meanders for miles through a deep trough of cedar glades and sycamore beds in the community of Primm Springs. The area was first developed around 1830 as a resort town with hotels, a dancing pavilion and a spa where visitors could enjoy the mineral waters, believed to have healing powers. The valley is filled with small farms. Some date back several generations while others were purchased more recently by wealthy Nashvillians seeking to escape the city.

The utility’s engineering report says discussions with community leaders “have been ongoing for several years, and all agree this project is necessary for the continued growth of the area,” but many local leaders say they have been caught off guard.

The Hickman County Commission passed a resolution Feb. 28 saying the project was developed without “any input” from residents or commissioners. They asked the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to delay any approval for at least six months to give them time to study the proposal.

During a Friends of Lick Creek overflow meeting in late February, TDEC Deputy Commissioner for the Office of the Environment, Greg Young, was shot by disgruntled residents.

In addition to water quality, some said they worried a new sewer line would invite irresponsible development because the county lacks zoning or a long-term development plan. Others worried about the volume of water that would be dumped into the creek, saying periodic flooding was already destroying crops and threatening drinking water from wells and springs.

Young said he was “just getting up to speed” on the matter. He promised: “We are going to tighten the brakes a bit to better understand the situation.

Although the opponents are organized and well funded, they still face an uphill battle. TDEC has already approved a study which found that the new plant is the utility’s only feasible alternative to accommodate growth. The study of alternatives is a necessary step to obtain authorization to degrade the water quality of a watercourse.

Residents said the study was written to support what the utility had already decided to do. For example, it has not explored the alternative of returning treated water to the Great Cumberland River, from where much of it is initially drawn.

Neil Jobe grew up in nearby Dickson County on Jones Creek. He saw the water turn “dirty” when Dickson started using it to drain sewage from one of the plants the Water Authority now wants to complete with the proposed Lick Creek plant.

“I saw the minnows die and the fish die,” he said. “When we moved to this remote place, we thought we were never going to be infected again.”