Trade groups back TDEC’s rollback of construction regulations

By: - August 20, 2021 5:00 am
An apartment building under construction on McEwen Drive in Franklin. (Photo: staff)

An apartment building under construction on McEwen Drive in Franklin. (Photo: staff)

Cindy Whitt and Judy Alexander, neighbors in the Westhaven subdivision in Williamson County for nearly 15 years, have watched their development grow from a small new-build subdivision of 500 homes to now more than 2,500.

In that time, on their regular walks together, they’ve also witnessed the results of dwindling green space as construction has surged:

“Almost everything from the construction runs through our storm sewer,” said Alexander. “Even though the developers put up fences (designed to prevent silt from escaping) all you need is a really steady rain — it doesn’t have to be heavy — and it all flows into our the Harpeth and the West Harpeth.”

The pair have contacted the Corps of Engineers, the city of Franklin and the state department of environment and conservation, but despite inspections, overflow ponds and new fencing, the problem persists.

“It blows my mind if we can’t even enforce the rules in wealthy Williamson County,” said Whitt, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970’s.

The women are now among more than 100 Tennessee residents who have voiced their opposition in public meetings and in written comments to proposed revisions to the permitting process for construction companies that Whitt fears will make the problems worse.

The proposed change by the state’s environmental regulators would rollback longstanding regulation for construction site runoff — rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off site and into nearby waterways, often creating deposits of silt that impact water quality and aquatic life.

In an unusual move, a division within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation  — the Division of Natural Areas — has weighed in to take issue with the permit change. “We believe that sites assessments remain a key tool in understanding the character of a site and can provide documentation of ecological resources prior to commencement of construction,”  a staff member in the Division of Water Resources wrote to colleagues at TDEC.

Silt has historically been among the biggest pollutants in Tennessee’s creeks and streams, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which nevertheless proposed the changes. Currently construction sites are prohibited from disturbing 50 acres of property at one time without a special stormwater permit, a process that entails public notice and the opportunity for comment. The proposed new revisions would eliminate that permit requirement.

Construction site disturbances currently require twice-weekly stormwater monitoring inspections. The proposed permit revisions would keep twice-weekly inspections at sites involving 50 or more acres, but reduced required inspections to once per week for smaller sites.

The new rules are being championed by the Tennessee Homebuilder Association and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who have pointed out that part of the change would revert Tennessee’s inspection standards to federal standards, which require only once-per-week inspections of construction sites.

“The Chamber appreciates and is supportive of the changes proposed in the revised (permit proposal) for discharges of stormwater for construction related activities,” said Mallorie Kerby, associate vice president for environment and energy with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Tennessee Manufacturing Association.

“The Chamber agrees that the site inspection frequency should be revised to not exceed the federal minimum requirement,” Kerby said.

In an unusual move, a separate division within the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation  — the Division of Natural Areas — has weighed in to take issue with the permit change.

The Division of Natural Areas assists in providing on advice on proper management of plants and animals on Tennessee’s protected lands and private properties. Scientists within the division are often called upon to provide expertise on these potential impacts during the existing permitting process.

“For the most part we, like (the Division of Water Resources) see siltation as the primary threat to the maintenance of sustainable populations of target organisms, including fish, crayfish, snails, mussels, insects, and amphibians,” a letter from Roger McCoy to his colleagues at TDEC about the permitting changes being proposed said.

“We believe that sites assessments remain a key tool in understanding the character of a site and can provide documentation of ecological resources prior to commencement of construction,” he wrote.

Environmental groups have also lined up to oppose the permitting process change, including the Tennessee Environmental Council, the Obed Watershed Community Association, the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, the Southern Environmental Law Association, the Harpeth Conservancy and the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter.

“Pollution from construction stormwater runoff is a massive and ongoing problem in Tennessee, and there is reason to think it will only get worse,” a letter from the groups said. “The draft (permit changes) represents an unacceptable decrease in the level of oversight for construction activities, and the level of protection for Tennessee’s waters.”

TDEC officials have said the change would streamline the permitting process and is based on TDEC’s longtime experience with regulating stormwater runoff.  Regulators said that once-per-week inspections were adequate based on that experience, and in line with federal standards.

The policy change does not require legislative approval and the ultimate decision rests with TDEC.

“TDEC is currently reviewing public comments received during the public comment period regarding this permit reissuance,” spokesperson Kim Schofinski said. “Once our review is complete, we will make a determination and send a formal response to all who submitted a comment during the public comment period.”

 

 

 

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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