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$83 Million Later, Unfinished Dam Being Dismantled

Sunday, October 10, 1999 12:00 PM | James Parnell (Administrator)

Marta W. Aldrich

The AP

COLUMBIA, Tenn. - On a chigger-infested basin along the Duck River, bulldozer-size hydraulic hammers chip away at 26,000 cubic yards of concrete that for 16 years stood as a monument to failure.

The Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) unfinished Columbia Dam will never hold back a drop of water. It is being demolished.

For hundreds of people who saw their families uprooted and homesteads bulldozed to make way for the project in the 1970s, a bitter taste returned in May with the announcement that the dam would come down.

"To think that it was all for nothing, it's sad," said Patricia West, 73, whose 156-acre farm was among 12,800 acres acquired. "My heart is still broken."

The TVA spent about $83 million on the dam between 1969 and 1983, when the project was halted over environmental concerns. The dam's concrete portion was more than 90 percent complete and the project as a whole was nearly half done.

Except for occasional vandals and rappellers, the site was mostly abandoned until June 1, when demolition crews arrived.

Rising price tag

The TVA cited safety among its reasons for the demolition - people fall off dams from time to time - but the price tag also had become prohibitive. Construction and land expenses have risen steeply since 1967, from a projected $50 million then to $200 million.

Demolition should be finished by January.

Each weekday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., hydraulic hammers flake off 15 cubic yards of concrete an hour. The TVA will have spent $2.4 million once the dam is dismantled and broken rock used to reshape the basin to resemble the original site. TVA project manager Dan Ferry said it's an expense of conscience.

"We're trying to leave this land in as good a shape as we can. We've irritated people enough around here already," he said.

The TVA, created in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, built a string of power-producing and flood-controlling dams in Tennessee and Kentucky through the 1940s. For the most part, they transformed the character of the flood-prone Tennessee Valley and made large-scale economic growth possible.

Less well received were TVA tributary dams such as Columbia that came in the 1960s and '70s. Their goals weren't electricity production but local economic development, drinking water and recreation.

Local business leaders envisioned the Columbia Dam as a precursor to industrial growth for the region. They formed the Upper Duck River Development Association in 1964 and lobbied U.S. Rep. Joe Evins, D-Tenn. He was chairman of the powerful House subcommittee on public works and a friend of Columbia banker and dam proponent Lon MacFarland.

Evins secured the first funding in 1969 for a two-dam project on the Duck River that would begin with Normandy Dam and finish with the more expensive Columbia Dam 100 miles to the north.

"He just thought it would be a great benefit to that area," said Robert Moore Jr., who worked for the late congressman in the early 1960s.

Attorney Frank Fly, who represented environmental groups and farmers opposing the project, saw it as pork-barrel politics at its worst.

"The few who were going to get money at Columbia were in favor of this project. Everyone else was against it," he said.

Fly believes the TVA was dragged unwillingly into the job. The agency conducted three feasibility studies - in 1933, 1951 and 1966 - that recommended against building the dam. However, the last study was revised and presented a more favorable case, showing $1.20 of benefits for every $1 of cost and setting the stage for federal funding.

The TVA quickly began acquiring the flat, rocky land on the outskirts of Columbia, 40 miles south of Nashville, where farms and homes dotted rural communities.

Few residents able to fight

Few residents had the resources or know-how to fight the giant federal utility when TVA officials ordered them to sell or face condemnation.

"They'd say, `If you don't like what we give you, you can hire a lawyer,"' said Buddy Derryberry, whose parents' country store was bought in the land rush.

"After that, the elderly folks were never the same. It destroyed them. I remember seeing 80-year-old people just sit down and cry like a baby because they didn't want to leave home."

Environmentalists pounced on the Columbia project, which would impound the Duck River on relatively level land. They said the dam would turn the tributary into a murky, algae-filled lake.

They mailed small bottles of smelly green water to Tennessee's congressional delegation, took the matter to federal court and managed to get several construction delays, angering local supporters who saw the environmentalists - mainly out-of-state groups - as meddlers.

But the courts and later government regulators eventually sided with the TVA and allowed the project to proceed.

The momentum shifted by 1977 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added a number of freshwater mussels to its list of endangered species, including two in the Duck River: the birdwing pearly mussel and the Cumberland monkeyface pearly mussel. Efforts to transplant the inch-long creatures to other streams were unsuccessful.

"That pretty well sunk us there," Ferry said of the Columbia project.

Business leaders disappointed

In Columbia, seat of the fifth-fastest-growing county in Tennessee and home to the Saturn car plant, business leaders remain disappointed.

"The dam represented our future," said ex-City Manager William Gentner. "Without a good water supply, we're at the whim of Mother Nature. And I have yet to see a city grow without ample water."

Columbia resident Ralph Meece is more direct.

"There will be a time when Columbia will be thirsty and stinky," said Meece, who joined two dozen protesters outside the demolition site in June. "At this rate, human beings will be the endangered species."

Chamber of Commerce President Tony Beyer said most locals backed the dam in the early years but support eroded.

"I think people just got tired of hearing about it," Beyer said. "The only enthusiasm lately has been over what to do with the land now that they're tearing down the dam. Everybody has their own idea."

The TVA has recommended transferring all 12,800 acres to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to manage. Some land would be for public use, including sites for two schools, a fire hall, a civil-defense training center and recycling station. Part would be reserved for another potential water-supply project. And a fraction would go for residential use.

In the meantime, former landowners and their heirs are suing the TVA in federal court to reclaim their land.

Patricia West is among the 125 people listed in the complaint. She wants back the farm where she and her husband raised three children and tended cattle, tobacco and hay for 23 years.

"No one will ever know the strain and hardship this put on us," said West, whose husband died of a heart attack six years after the move.

"I've cussed and cried. . . . If I could get that land back, I'd die happy."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved. 

Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, #58-1746179.

P.O. Box 159041 Nashville, Tennessee 37215-9041

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