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For Immediate Release: Mar 17, 2005
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

LAWSUIT FILED TO SAVE VALUABLE TENNESSEE WETLANDS

Wetlands at Risk of Destruction under Misguided Federal Policy


Cumberland Plateau, TN -- To prevent wetlands in the scenic Falling Water River basin in Tennessee from being destroyed, a number of environmental and conservation groups are filing suit today against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for failing to uphold the Clean Water Act. The suit asserts that the wetlands, situated on the Highland Rim of the Nashville basin, will be destroyed if the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do not enforce Clean Water Act safeguards.

“The Corps and EPA cannot simply walk away from their duty to protect Tennessee’s waters,” says Jim Murphy, Water Resources Counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. “If wetlands like these are not protected under the Clean Water Act, it could signal open season for the federally unregulated pollution and destruction of Tennessee’s waters.”

The failure to enforce federal protections stems from what Murphy says is “an improper interpretation” of a 2001 Supreme Court decision that the Bush administration has used to issue a policy denying Clean Water Act safeguards to many waters.

The valuable wetlands at risk are located to the east of the Upper Cumberland Regional Airport (UCRA) and feed into the Falling Water River in the Cumberland Plateau region. The wetlands flow into waters above Burgess Falls, an important state natural area. These wetlands are abundant with wildlife, such as barking tree frogs, ducks, geese, and the endangered gray bat, and support diverse vegetation. UCRA is planning an expansion that will cover the wetlands with pavement.

The National Wildlife Federation, along with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Sierra Club, Tennessee Environmental Council and the Tennessee Clean Water Network, are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Federal District Court in Middle District of Tennessee.

The lawsuit is being filed after a dye trace and other information indicated that waters from the wetland are connected to the Falling Water River and, therefore, should be covered under the Clean Water Act. The Nashville District of the Corps claims that the wetlands are “isolated” and don’t require a Clean Water Act permit. But an expert analysis conducted for the environmental groups clearly shows that water from the wetlands feed the Falling Water River. The Corps, after receiving this information, still failed to act.

The groups contend that the Nashville District based their decision on a misinterpretation of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision, (2001), a narrow U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a sand and gravel pit did not have sufficient hydrological or ecological connection to other waters to be covered by the Clean Water Act.

“This policy has broad implications for drinking water quality, flood control, and wildlife habitat,” says Robin Mann, Chair of the Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign. “Wetlands are economically vital and a treasured part of Tennessee’s landscape. The Clean Water Act has afforded wetlands safeguards from pollution for the past 30 years. Limiting the scope of something that works just doesn’t make sense.”

“These wetlands are exceptional to the area,” says Barry Sulkin, state director for PEER and a Board Member of TEC. “They provide excellent habitat to birds, frogs and other wildlife and help keep the already polluted Falling Water River clean. Tennessee simply cannot afford to lose federal safeguards for these waters.”

“This wetland area presents for me and other residents of the Upper Cumberland area the rare experience of viewing a high quality marsh ringed by a swamp,” says John Harwood, Program Chair of the Upper Cumberland Group of the Sierra Club and a member of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. “Rather than being turned into pavement, with proper protection this wetland area could instead serve as a recreational and educational feature for local residents and visitors to the airport.”

This action is part of the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club’s broader campaigns to ensure that Clean Water Act protection is maintained for the nations’ streams and wetlands. These organizations are committed to making sure the Corps properly applies the law when it comes to protecting the waters that wildlife depends on.