In November 2019, a watchdog non-profit group called Tennessee Riverkeeper alerted the city of Clarksville of their intent to file a lawsuit claiming the city’s sewage treatment plant had illegally released 84 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Cumberland river. On January 24, a multi-million dollar lawsuit was officially filed with a reduced claim of 24 million gallons released over five years. The organization claims that these overflows violate the Clean Water Act.
According to their website, Tennessee Riverkeeper “monitors polluters and their pollution permits, responds to citizen complaints, and utilizes other methods to further protect the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and their tributaries.” The organization was founded in 2009 by David Whiteside, the godchild of Robert F. Kennedy and an avid environmentalist. Whiteside stated to NewsChannel5 Nashville that “sewage is one of the biggest pollution threats to the Cumberland River. Tennessee Riverkeeper is seeking to reduce sewage pollution in the Cumberland Valley, and addressing Clarksville’s issues would go a long way in cleaning up our river.”
Untreated sewage and unsafe wastewater handling pose a special risk to America’s waterways. No amount of this waste should be released into our rivers. Yet due to aging infrastructure, our water treatment plants are rife with problems. American Rivers sums it up best, saying:
"When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal government began making significant investments to modernize sewage treatment infrastructure. Today, many of the plants built with that initial investment are near the end of their effective lives. There are 600,000 miles of sewer pipes across the country and the average age is 33 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s wastewater infrastructure a “D” grade overall."
When combined with poor infrastructure, untreated sewage can leak into our waterways, posing a significant health risk. This sewage can contain anything from pharmaceuticals and pesticides to bacteria and viruses that cause infectious diseases. According to a national river conservation organization called American Rivers, “3.5 million Americans get sick each year after swimming, boating, fishing, or otherwise touching water they thought was safe.” That is why it is important to fight for clean water and hold local and state governments accountable.
Access to clean water is a human right. The citizens of Tennessee deserve a government that protects and promotes our environment, instead of actively harming it. In a release on January 29, city officials responded by saying: “the city of Clarksville is aggressively improving its entire wastewater collection and treatment system and has spent more than $130 million since 2010 on construction of a new sewage treatment plant and other upgrades.” If this is the case, why are the leaks occurring? Once again, no amount of wastewater or sewage escaping is acceptable, considering the potential pathogens that could be released and the harmful side effects that could ensue. The city believes that the money that will be tied up in the lawsuit would be better spent continuing to work on the infrastructure that needs updates, but this lawsuit would never have been filed if Clarksville had simply taken the steps necessary to avoid water pollution. Whiteside stated that “if Clarksville had been doing a better job and treating the sewage infrastructure problems more seriously over the past decades, then we would not be in a position where Riverkeeper had to sue them.”
It is important that we support groups like Tennessee Riverkeeper that are ensuring accountability. Sometimes it may be hard to keep track of the depth of environmental issues in Tennessee, but there are many dedicated people attempting to keep an eye on the problems and prevent future degradation. If no one is looking, mistakes or decisions will go unnoticed and continue to occur. Clarksville has let the community down by allowing these leaks to occur. Rivers, tributaries, and lakes are all public goods that we must protect for the benefit of everyone involved. Regardless of how it turns out, this lawsuit has brought attention to the actions of an organization that was previously unwatched.