Rep. Hawk voices concern about proposed enrichment plant

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Citizens for the Preservation of Valley Beautiful continued their strategy sessions Tuesday night with nearly 70 persons in attendance, among them newly elected state Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville, representing the 5th District.
   Some residents said they had received word that announcement of a site location for a $1.1 billion uranium enrichment facility known as Louisiana Energy Services could come within the next seven days.
   Rep. Hawk, who unseated long-time Rep. Zane Whitson, a proponent of the gas centrifuge facility, in the Aug. 1 General Election, said that though "issues did arise in Unicoi County, the way vote totals came in, it would not have mattered in terms of the numbers of votes in Unicoi County.
   "Population had as much to do with electing me as anything. Greene County makes up two-thirds of the electorate."
   Hawk said that after he took his stance of opposition against the Urenco-led project, "I was told that my stance meant nothing to whether or not this plant would locate here. They said there was nothing I could do about it, the plant was coming in."
   Hawk said he does not believe that the uranium enrichment plant is the right match for Unicoi County. "I don't think it's the right match for the population and work force, I don't think it's the right match for the region in terms of the types of industry we need to locate in the community.
   "I want Unicoi County to know that I am here to be their voice. If they have concerns about issues, I need to know about those concerns and I want to take them up with the powers that be, so to say. I want to make sure that any industry that is located in Unicoi County is a positive for all those considered. You have landowners to consider, you have schoolchildren to consider, you have people who need jobs to consider."
   According to Hawk, the industry will not solve the county's employment needs. "Unicoi has one of the higher unemployment rates in the region. It has for quite some time. This is a plant that is several years down the road and it is not guaranteed to provide the first job to a Unicoi County resident.
   "From what I understand, the expertise that it takes to work in this, it takes so many years in college and is to such a precise degree, that there are very, very few individuals in Unicoi County High School that are going to school themselves to physically work in this plant. I have to look at all the different factors and weigh them equally," Hawk said.
   Among persons opposed to the LES plant who spoke at Tuesday's meeting was Wilhemina Williams of Chuckey, representing the Friends of the Nolichucky River Valley Inc.
   Williams said her organization was formed about three years ago when Johnson City threatened to put a sewage treatment plant next to the Davy Crockett State Park.
   "We thought that was the most foolish thing they could do. Why would they want to put a sewer treatment plant next to one of the most attractive and most visited state parks in the state of Tennessee?"
   That park has 220,000 visitors each year, she said, and the proposed treatment plant was 27 miles from the city of Johnson City.
   "My family has been on this land down in Chuckey since 1777, so the 'Valley Beautiful' is certainly what they came here for and what they stayed here for," Williams said.
   "Of course, if you know anything about economic development and development in general, you know that to attract development you've got to put in a sewer plant and put in infrastructure and then the people will come. What they forgot was where they chose was Class A soil. This is alluvian soil that is compared to the Nile River Valley, and the farmers in this valley have been here for hundreds of years. Before white man, Indians were farming this land," according to Williams.
   Local farmers banded together. "They didn't know in Washington County who they were up against until all of those farmers started showing up at the Washington County Council meetings. We got not only in their face, but we were in the face of the people in Nashville, we were in the face of everybody that we could get in front of, and shaking our fingers at them and letting them know that this was not where it needed to be," Williams said.
   "We found out from that experience that you have to pull out every stopper that you can to stop these things. What they forgot was that agriculture is a very important industry and an important part of our economy in this area. You look at this land and you think, 'Oh gee, it's beautiful.' Nothing is going on here.
   "Well, they forget that, that 'nothing going on' is the corn and the tomatoes and the watermelons and all of the agriculture that's being produced," she said.
   Williams is concerned not only about impact to agriculture from a new plant and from processes conducted at Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, but also the high cancer rate in the area of Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, West Virginia and Southeastern Kentucky. "We are in one of the three hot spots in the whole United States for cancer rates," she said.
   "I live on the river. I live in Chuckey. There's not a house, I don't think, up and down the river in the area that we live in that's not affected by cancer. We don't have good data on what causes that cancer, where it's coming from, but we do drink the Greeneville city water that's comes into the Chuckey Utility District," she said. That water has its genesis in the Nolichucky River which runs through Unicoi and Greene counties.
   "The cancer rates are a real concern to us. Every day, especially this summer, I've watched the tomato fields being irrigated directly out of the river. I know that that water probably contains heavy metals and that those heavy metals are being directly deposited on the soils."
   Williams said she is concerned that more nuclear industry in the area will not only impact the agricultural industry, but also could ruin the region's historical and environmental tourism.
   "I would hate for a company that would hire maybe 250 people to [ruin it] for those 220,000 people who come here and visit every year," she said.