Fossil discovery in Gray among top environmental events in 2001

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   The year 2001 was one of tragedy and amazing discovery, according to Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which on Monday released its list of top events for the year related to protecting the state's environment and conserving natural resources.
   One major occurrence took place in Washington County, where a routine highway construction project turned into a fossil discovery of gigantic scientific proportions.
   The Tennessee Department of Transportation began widening and straightening a two-lane road south of Gray Station in Washington County near Daniel Boone High School. During construction, the contractor found a deposit of soft black clay in the normally hard red clay. Geologists were called in and located a large number of mineralized animal bones and plant remains in the layers of black clay. The 5-million-year-old bones were in perfect condition and turned out to be that of a tapir -- a large, hoglike mammal related to the rhinoceros. The tapir, which is native to tropical America and the Malayan peninsula, has a flexible snout, feeds on plant, and is active at night.
   Another major event occurred Aug. 9 when Justin Wilson, deputy to the governor, sent TDEC Commissioner Milton Hamilton Jr. a letter directing TDEC to suspend acceptance of permit applications for new fossil fuel-fired electricity generating units. The sharp increase in the number of power plants proposed and the large volumes of water (4-8 million gallons a day) used by combined cycle facilities led to the suspension. Georgia and Kentucky also announced similar policies to examine the larger implications of the plants. TDEC is continuing to process permit applications received before the governor's decision.
   The agency also continued strong enforcement of polluters, cutting the time it takes to issue an enforcement order by more than 70 percent since 1994. In 2000, TDEC issued 889 orders assessing more than $7.9 million in penalties, compared to 118 orders in 1994 assessing $1.1 million. Enforcement data for 2001 will not be available until February.
   Another milestone for Tennessee occurred July 2 when, for the first time since passage of the federal Clean Air Act, Tennessee was in compliance with all current national air quality standards. Tennessee is one of the few states in the East that meets all clean air requirements. In the future, stricter standards for ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter are expected and steps are being taken to enable the state to meet those.
   Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, special assistance was given to water suppliers to ensure the safety of water treatment facilities and their infrastructure. The state also awarded nearly $21 million from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to improve local drinking water treatment facilities.
   On Oct. 31, Gov. Don Sundquist announced measures to address security concerns totaling more than $8 million. The new measures affect several state agencies that suffered budget cuts in August. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging states to use the flexibility under EPA's program grants for related homeland security activities.
   On Oct. 29, Tennessee's new brownfields program kicked off after the General Assembly passed the Brownfields Redevelopment Amendment. The legislation allows the cleanup and reuse of sites that have been or are perceived to be contaminated but have potential for redevelopment. The goal of the program is to encourage more and faster cleanups and to allow for redevelopment of valuable property.
   And in December, the state marked the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Natural Areas Preservation Act. Tennessee has 62 designated state natural areas, covering almost 90,000 acres.