James McMillan: ‘I won’t shut up’

Betty BeanFountain City, Knox Scene

He found it in an old shoe box in his bedroom – a pretty humble storage venue for a consent decree signed by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas W. Phillips – and now James McMillan is thinking that a 10-year-old court order might just be useful in his latest fight to protect his family’s farm.

Last month, we wrote about McMillan documenting construction workers draining thick, muddy water out of a failed detention pond into Murphy Creek, a tributary of White’s Creek, a major tributary of First Creek, which periodically floods Fountain City and empties directly into the Tennessee River just east of downtown.

The water was red clay orange as it passed under the McCampbell Drive bridge in the middle of the McMillan pasture and had been diluted to a milky brown a few miles downstream where it joins First Creek. McMillan and his neighbor Kevin Murphy took pictures to document what appeared to be evidence of some serious codes violations.

This picture, also taken by McMillan on Aug. 8, shows sediment-rich discharge flowing offsite at McCampbell Drive. McMillan said TDEC Construction General Permit contains specific discharge criteria … “no discharges of visible solids, or bottom deposits, or turbidity that impairs the usefulness of waters of the state. … And there shall be no distinctly visible floating scum and the stormwater discharge must not cause an objectionable color contrast in the receiving stream.”

McMillan started firing off emails to city, state and federal regulators, becoming increasingly irate as the mud kept rolling. It has now been nearly a month since it started, and the only response he has received from the city are two emails from engineering director Harold Cannon – the first one scolding him for his tone and the second one congratulating him for being a little nicer. There was very little mention of the issue that had gotten McMillan going.

“Far as I can tell, this has been going on for 25-30 days without stopping,” James McMillan said. “I’ve been documenting it for the last month. I’ve heard back twice from the EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) and the state once. All I got from the city was a sarcastic response. I’m beyond disappointed.

“This is worse behavior than we saw out of the county 20 years ago. (Retired engineering director) Steve King was always polite to citizens, and within a day or two, I would get a response. Sometimes they would even thank me for bringing this to their attention.

“My biggest disappointment is the city’s nonresponse to any of their obligations to me and to everybody else in the White Creek/First Creek watershed. Millions spent in previous administrations to try to improve flooding and water quality conditions – that’s wasted money now, because they ignore previous efforts to address pollution and flooding.”

The construction project in question is the latest addition to a project that is now called the Legends at Oak Grove, an up-scale apartment complex that was originally called Legends at Washington Pike when it was voluntarily annexed by the city of Knoxville during the Haslam administration.

The dispute that took this case to federal court happened after an excavation contractor breeched the aquifer that fed the well at James McMillan’s brother Mike’s historic Victorian farmhouse, rendering the water unfit for human use and consumption. The family hauled in drinking water and went up the hill to Charles McMillan’s house to shower for the duration. The Tennessee Clean Water Network joined the list of plaintiffs and the case was litigated front, back and sideways for a couple of years before the two sides agreed that Legends (and associated developer defendants) would pay the costs of hooking the McMillans up to city water and be subjected to close inspections for the next two years.

They also promised not to dirty up the creeks in the future and to require their employees and contractors to install and maintain stormwater controls at any future expansions and to take an advanced erosion control training course to be provided by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and to provide proof of that certification to the plaintiffs (the McMillans).

“Legends” has changed ownership over the years, but the language of the consent order binds “successor” owners to the terms of the decree.

“I know a lot of people wish I’d shut up,” James McMillan said. “But I don’t give a damn. I won’t shut up till I’m six feet under.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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