Cooper Op-Ed: Keep quarry near Old Hickory Dam from harming Nashville
Keep quarry near Old Hickory Dam from harming Nashville
October 8, 2015
By Jim Cooper
What would happen to Nashville if one of the dams failed up the Cumberland River?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already ranked two dams above Nashville — Wolf Creek and Center Hill — as two of the most dangerous dams in America. Emergency repairs are costing $1.1 billion. The Corps claims to have fixed Wolf Creek Dam after many years of work, but Center Hill Dam remains a threat.
Now I am worried that a dam much closer to Nashville, Old Hickory, is in trouble. The 60-year-old dam looks solid today, but it was designed for a 50-year economic life. It will soon be shaken because a company wants to dynamite a new rock quarry on adjacent property.
Having already spent $1.1 billion on dam repairs, why risk damaging a dam even closer to Nashville? All of our dams are fragile due to our geology. Karst limestone is brittle and easily eroded by water.
The new fissures around Wolf Creek and Center Hill dams have already cost us a fortune; we don’t need trouble with Old Hickory Dam. Its lake rises 60 feet above the Cumberland River and is only 25 river miles from downtown.
The massive concrete of Old Hickory Dam is about half a mile from the planned quarry. But the long, narrow earthen part of the dam — a dike — comes within a few feet of the quarry site. The Corps has been worried about its stability for years, installing underground sensors to monitor problems. These sensors are the “little Dutch boys” that are protecting Nashville.
But guess what? Tennessee law allows quarry operators to use as much dynamite as they want. How will these explosions affect our aging concrete/earthen dam? The quarry company is racing to dig with an impressive line of bulldozers even before it gets the required permits. The quarry company has not talked to the Corps about its plans.
Even if Old Hickory Dam survives the explosions, will the quarry itself be safe with a quarry wall so close to Old Hickory Lake? Sometimes quarry walls collapse unexpectedly, as we learned in 2010 on Richland Creek. That collapse created a harmless lake; a collapse at the new quarry could bypass Old Hickory Dam entirely, flooding all of Nashville.
Councilman Larry Hagar and state Rep. Bill Beck are leading the fight at the local and state level. The Metro Council passed a resolution on first reading on Tuesday night to stop the quarry for traffic, noise and nuisance concerns, but it will require two more readings and a month of delay.
The 2016 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is unlikely to adopt the sensible quarry regulations that other states have adopted. Even if it did act, the quarry company will claim that it is “vested” under the old law.
I am fighting the quarry at the federal level. A bald eagle nests within 1,000 feet of the quarry, two ancient cemeteries are located on it, and there are wetlands issues. The Corps’ public recreation area with 80,000 visitors a year will be ruined by the quarry, but the Corps is still being reactive, reluctant to jump into what are normally state regulatory issues.
What is more important: bureaucratic turf or public safety? The 2010 flood cost Nashville at least $2 billion in damage, not counting human hardship. We can’t control the weather, but we can stop man-made hazards from endangering us.
If the quarry company cared, it would buy enough insurance to protect us. Of course, billions of dollars of coverage are not affordable, especially to small companies. So the risk is on Nashville property owners, not on the company trying to make money at our expense.
The risk is being socialized while the profits are privatized. Quarries should be located where they are not a risk to our city.