Where does Wal-Mart build?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR Staff

   In the summer of 1997, Wal-Mart announced plans to construct a Supercenter on Charlotte Pike in Nashville near its existing smaller store.
   Construction required the destruction of a prehistoric Native American cemetery dating to the Mississippian cultural period, as well as Confederate cannon emplacements and embankments along the Cumberland River known as Kelley's Battery.
   The developer, JDN Realty, filed a "complaint versus unknown descendants" in Davidson County Chancery Court in October 1997, requesting permission to "terminate the use of land as a burial ground and to remove certain remains and artifacts and rebury these items."
   On Jan. 20, 1998, the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes faxed a letter to the court and the Tennessee Department of Archaeology as the "unknown descendants" of the complaint. The letter was never heard in court.
   Three days later, Davidson County Chancellor Barbara McCoy ruled that Native Americans have no "standing" in Tennessee courts, and on Jan. 28, terminated the Native cemetery, clearing the way for destruction of the site.
   Though Tennessee Code Annotated provides for observers during Native American grave removal, no Native American observer was allowed. The remains of 135 Native Americans recovered during excavation were stored in cardboard boxes and turned over to the state, where they apparently remain.
   Many Nashvillians, Civil War groups and members of the Native American community banded together in a fruitless effort to keep Wal-Mart out. Lawsuits were filed and the retail giant was held up in court for more than a year. In the end, amid protests, Wal-Mart held its grand opening Aug. 28, 1999.
   A former East Tennessee State University student, Jill Douglas -- wife of Grammy-award-winning dobro player Jerry Douglas -- and a neighbor, Lisa Cowan, filed suit on behalf of United Neighbors against Metro Nashville on the grounds that the city was going against its 20-year zoning plan.
   "We kept it tied up in court for a year and a half. We slowed them down, we cost them some money. I knew they would steamroll over us, which they eventually did. They built the thing and it's up," Douglas said.
   "There was already a store in West Nashville -- a regular Wal-Mart -- and they came in proposing to build a super Wal-Mart. They bought, I think, it was 24 acres on the Cumberland River which was a Native American burial ground, and the site of the only Confederate Naval battle in the Civil War," she said. "It was a huge burial ground. It wasn't any one tribe, it was a hunting/gathering area. They excavated the graves." The site also was in a flood plain.
   "The city zoning for the area didn't support what they wanted to do. Our councilman for this district completely supported Wal-Mart while telling the neighborhood he was listening to their concerns," she said. The zoning change and the sale to Wal-Mart ultimately went through. "The councilman wasn't re-elected, by the way."
   "The developer, during negotiations, proposed that they would be happy to put up a Native American window display at the layaway counter in Wal-Mart as an educational point of reference," however this was not done, Douglas said.
   As a result of the new Supercenter, the entire shopping center which housed the former Wal-Mart closed, Douglas said, taking with it a Hancock Fabrics, a paint store, and other businesses.
   "It's pretty close to impossible to stop them, but it's not impossible if you can garner the support of the community and get them really quickly to organize and be vocal," Douglas said.
   "The Native American community put up a fuss, the historians did, the Confederate boys around here did," she said, but apparently they did not organize soon enough. "It should have been a historical site. The place where the cannons sat, you can still see them on the bank of the river there."
   Cowan, in an e-mail message to the Star, said, "I'm sorry to hear that Wal-Mart may be coming to your town -- they are almost impossible to stop when they get their sights set on a location.
   "For the life of me, I don't understand why so many people want to send their money to Arkansas to the richest family in America instead of leaving it at home with their neighbors," Cowan said.
   According to articles in newspapers across the nation, Wal-Mart often proposes to build on Native American burial grounds, old industrial sites, brownfields, and Superfund sites. In Morgantown, W.Va., American Indians and community groups organized in June 2000 to fight off a proposed Wal-Mart which was to be built on the site of an ancient Monongahela Indian village.
   Wal-Mart's distribution center near Greeneville was built on a Superfund site. In Asheville, N.C., Wal-Mart proposed to develop two Supercenters on sites from Asheville's industrial past, the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries in east Asheville and the old Gerber plant in south Asheville.
   Construction of new stores by Wal-Mart has resulted in $1 million in fines by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for Clean Water Act violations at 11 construction sites in Texas and six sites in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Massachusetts.
   The EPA alleged that Wal-Mart and 10 of its contractors failed to comply with storm water regulations and illegally discharged pollution from several construction sites. Wal-Mart concedes that storm water runoffs occurred at several sites, but denied that runoff found its way into streams and lakes or that it contaminated drinking water. Wal-Mart said it will establish an environmental management plan to improve its compliance with environmental laws at its construction sites and to minimize the impact of its building on streams and watersheds.
   In Elizabethton, Wal-Mart is considering locating on the former North American Rayon Corp. site off West Elk Avenue. The property contains two areas of concern: an unpermitted landfill, containing mostly fly ash, which operated from the 1920s until its closure under state "open dump" regulations; and, the former powerhouse, which possibly could contain asbestos.
   According to Nat Smith of Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Solid Waste Management, the Supercenter, as proposed, does not include the landfill area. And according to Elizabethton Planning Director David Ornduff, the powerhouse also would remain.
   "That's one of the things we had hoped the project would take care of, but it didn't. They will build in front of it," Ornduff said.
   TDEC's Smith said there are no site problems remaining from the 2000 fire which ravaged a large portion of the former North American plant. "There is a clean closure as far as the fire," Smith said. For all intents and purposes, the site has been released, though a letter stating such is not yet in TDEC's files.
   If Wal-Mart chooses to lease the property, any future environmental problems related to the site would rest with NAR Corp. If the mega retailer decides to purchase the property, it could request "brownfield" designation, which basically releases the owners from some of the liability should they choose to develop the site.
   The NAR property has not been designated as a brownfield and the state has not received such a request from Wal-Mart. "It's up to the potential property owner to request that," Smith said. "So far, they haven't."
   Smith said there have been no problems associated with the old landfill. "Groundwater monitoring occurs, but there's no indication that there is contamination released into the groundwater or the river from that site. That portion of the North American property is not under consideration for a Wal-Mart location, so that doesn't even come into play, unless they decide to put a bigger parking lot or something out there," he said.
   Even if Wal-Mart purchased the powerhouse, they would be under no obligation to bring it down. "But they would have to ensure that there's no release of anything from that powerhouse," Smith said. "Where the asbestos would come into play is potentially around those seven individually hand-built boilers. There may be some in there; we don't know."
   Any new construction would have to be built on a slab. "The old basement areas were all excavated and cleaned, and then exempt fill material -- brick, rock, dirt -- went back into them and then they were capped. We wouldn't allow them to go in and penetrate that cap," Smith said.