When more than 18 inches of rain fell on Nashville in early May, most of the city seemed like a river. But at the Rogers Group’s REOStone quarry near Robertson Avenue, it was more like Niagara Falls.
Thousand of TV viewers got to watch live as Mother Nature put more than 7 billion gallons of water into the quarry in a matter of hours, the result of a breach of the Richland Creek streambed. The company, which suffered millions in damages, will be pumping that water out until around February of next year.
Since that time, the Rogers Group, working with state, federal and local officials and a team of nationally known consultants, has constructed a temporary fix and proposed a controversial permanent repair solution: reroute about 800 feet of the creek around its west Nashville rock quarry.
The proposed solution has been fast-tracked for approval by environmental officials worried that another, smaller rain event might undo the fix, destroy temporary sewers in the area and again dump raw sewage into the quarry and Cumberland River.
The proposed solution has also met with opposition from the Richland Creek Watershed Alliance, a local environmental group that has publicly demanded Rogers close or move the quarry, or that Richland Creek simply be restored to its old (pre-flood) location. At least two Metro Council members have backed the group’s claims and demanded answers.
With its outrage, the group was able to draw the Rogers Group and local, state and federal officials to a public meeting that takes place Wednesday, July 14. But it’s not clear environmentalists are offering a feasible alternative.
Why not just put it back where it was?
Paul E. Davis, director of the Division of Water Pollution Control for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said that because of the amount of water that fell and flowed into the quarry, several hundred feet of Richland Creek’s streambed disappeared forever.
He said that despite the wishes of some to restore the creek back to the path it flowed before the storm, such a thing is just not possible.
“The quarry is 300 feet deep; you can’t put this back in place,” Davis said. “You’d have to fill the quarry to put it back, and that is a tremendous engineering project.”
Dan Rose, vice president and general counsel for the Rogers Group, was even more blunt.
“The streambed that existed prior to the flood is simply and plainly gone,” he said. “It does not exist anymore. Billions of gallons of rushing water going through a small opening simply washed the old stream channel away. Despite the well-intentioned comments in the media by some watershed advocates, it’s just not possible to restore Richland Creek to its pre-flood location, as that streambed no longer exists.”
The company has temporarily moved the streambed, and the ruptured sewer lines in the area have been rerouted as well. Rose said there is also a natural fault line underneath the portion of Richland Creek that gave way.
“We want a permanent and stable repair,” he said. “We believe state and federal authorities and Metro Water Services share this goal.”
Metro Water Services, which is grappling with several broken sewer mains in the area, seems to agree.
“In terms of a permanent repair of the sewer system and its dependence on excavation and grading construction on site, it is necessary to coordinate with the activities of the REOStone/Rogers Group,” Sonia Harvat, spokeswoman for Metro Water Services, said.
Who is to blame?
The Rogers Group has owned the rock quarry since 2000. According to Rose, the company has never mined the portion near the creek and doesn’t plan to. Even so, environmentalists have questioned whether the giant hole made the creek more susceptible to such a blowout.
“The hole [quarry] and stream have been there for decades,” said Davis, one of the state’s top environmental regulators. “In all that time they coexisted and damage never happened before. The reason it hadn’t happened is we never had that rain before.”
But watershed advocates and at least one council member have also questioned whether Rogers is responsible for the terrible environmental condition of Richland Creek. The quarry is located almost at the end of the creek, right before it dumps into the Cumberland River.
The creek is listed as one of TDEC’s “impaired waters” for its excessive levels of fecal coliform (sewage), phosphorus (fertilizer) and pollutants from street stormwater runoff.
“REOStone is a limestone quarry,” Rose said. “We break big rocks into little rocks. Quarry operations involve no chemical processes or industrial wastes. The water being discharged from the quarry into Richland Creek is in fact significantly cleaner than the upstream water flowing past our quarry from the east. While we want to work with the state and other advocates to get the creek off this state impaired list, we are dealing with a situation where water does in fact flow downhill.”
The Richland Creek Watershed Alliance has contended that this project could help get the creek off the dubious state list. But Jeff Duke, principal ecologist for Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., who is overseeing the repair project for REOStone, said it isn’t possible.
“This project affects a relatively short section of the creek,” he said. “The habitat of the creek channel that was lost to the flood is gone, and the repaired section will have as good if not better habitat when complete. While this project will help Richland Creek in the long run, it will not remove the creek from the list of impaired, as dirty water from upstream will affect the repaired section in the same ways it affected the old stream channel.”
Davis said a repaired stream could be just as good as, if not better than, the old stream section it is replacing.
“We can build stable and functional stream — it has been done successfully all over the state,” he said. “The area here is a pretty open field, and the only constraints are [Tennessee Valley Authority] power lines and the quarry. In addition, we know the work of the company on this project and know them to be well-qualified.”
Davis added that repairing Richland Creek as the Rogers Group has proposed would be a net positive compared with where it stands today, emphasizing that the original status and location of the creek is not possible to recreate. According to data Davis has been presented, even 3 inches of rain would send water back over the edge into the quarry and delay the important sewer repair project in the same area.
As for the Richland Creek Watershed Association’s suggestion to shut down and refill the quarry to preserve the creek, Rose doesn’t take that too kindly.
“The REOStone quarry has coexisted in this location for over 60 years,” he said. “With all due respect, this is an overly simplistic answer to a complex situation. Rogers obviously values its REOStone operation, but as importantly, the REOStone quarry has provided essential material for the construction of I-65, the Briley Parkway and numerous other Greater Nashville infrastructure improvements and repairs.
“The cost of transporting construction materials is significant, and the city and its contractors rely on the availability of cost-effective materials. Roads, schools and hospitals require concrete, and concrete requires limestone. You can’t separate the end result from its essential ingredients.”