Them old muddy water blues

Betty BeanKnox Scene, North Knoxville

One day toward the middle of last week, James McMillan noticed a pickup truck blocking McCampbell Drive next to the creek down the hill from McMillan’s house. A couple of guys were scrubbing mud off the road where runoff from a construction site next to the lower part of the McMillan farm was washing down the slope, onto the pavement and into Murphy Creek just before it joins White’s Creek, changing the clear water into an orange muck (White’s Creek is a major tributary of flood-prone First Creek, a couple miles west of the McMillan farm).

McMillan, who has been documenting environmental abuses around the borders of his property for more than two decades, and who has never lost a lawsuit when he’s taken somebody to court, started filming them (polluters are supposed to retrieve and confine the wayward sediment, not wash it onto other people’s properties or into a stream – see state regulations here.

James McMillan is a plain-spoken farmer, and after decades of dealing with the consequences of lax enforcement, he’s pretty forceful about asserting his rights and says it’s stuff like this that turns him into the Hillbilly from Hell.

He heard one of the guys yell, “There he is!” when he started filming. He said he waved at them and said, “Yeah, it’s me – Ernest T!”

When he got enough footage to document what he considered to be clear violations of state, federal and local discharge regulations, he went home, unaware that he was being followed.

“Turned out, a drone followed me home. It was filming me, on my private property, and scaring the cattle.” McMillan said. He went back to his truck and emerged with a gun, whereupon the drone buzzed off. Later, he said, his family told him that a deputy had come by and left a message that it’s illegal to shoot drones.

This photo shows White’s Creek crossing McCampbell Drive at the bottom of the McMillan farm.

Over the next few hours, a steady stream of muddy water poured into the creek from the construction site, which is on the back side of Legends at Oak Grove, an upscale apartment development that fronts on Washington Pike. (Note: The McMillan farm lies outside the city in Knox County; Legends at Oak Grove was voluntarily annexed into the city of Knoxville during the Haslam administration.)

Some years ago, a demolition contractor working on this property damaged the aquifer that fed the McMillans’ 200-year-old well, fouling James’ brother Mike McMillan’s water supply and forcing the family to haul in drinking water for several years. The McMillans won their court case after years of litigation and aggravation. What happened last week was an unpleasant blast from the past.

James McMillan started firing off telephone messages and emails, but getting no response. By the next day, White’s Creek, which the McMillans use to water their cattle, was an opaque orange (see photo taken from bridge on McCampbell Drive looking north across the McMillan pasture).

Within hours, White’s Creek was discolored all the way down to First Creek in Fountain City. It was the color of mud at Fairmont Boulevard, and still no response from city engineering.

On Monday, McMillan heard from Harold Cannon, the city’s engineering director. He chided McMillan for his disrespectful behavior, said he’d instructed his stormwater specialists not to respond to correspondence from McMillan and said he would not respond to McMillan’s rude demands, either. He ignored the substance of McMillan’s complaints. See email here: Harold Cannon to James McMillan

As of the KnoxTNToday deadline Wednesday, no one from the city has bothered to talk about whether it’s permissible for a developer to foul the First Creek basin.

Which leads me to conclude that what is happening to White’s Creek is A-OK with the city of Knoxville.

It also makes me think about all those developers who spent a whole bunch of money trying to get Republicans elected to city government. They really didn’t need to waste all that dough.

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