Thursday, May 30, 2013

The culture of callousness at Metro Water Services: in 2005 they failed to be transparent with neighbors about storage of soil they knew to be contaminated

The pattern of a tense, distant relationship between Metro Water Services and the surrounding community in Salemtown and Germantown has a long track record engendered by callous treatment of neighbors concerned about constant streams of noxious odors, treated waste-toting trucks on area roads and neglect of stormwater issues. Recent attempts by water service officials and the reporters who repeat their talking points to spin community attitudes as more supportive of MWS belie the rocky history between the water treatment decision-makers and the people who have actually lived near the plant for decades.

This could have gone better.
When we first moved to Salemtown almost 10 years ago, we listened to long-time residents recount their frustrations with MWS. Then in 2005, I attended my first community meeting with Metro Water officials on the planned biosolids facility and I experienced firsthand some of the frustrations felt in the community. Revisiting my notes on the 2005 meeting, my mind draws out a few impressions based on what I have experienced with the agency since then (and especially in light of recent revelations that MWS is creating a new North Nashville landfill with petroleum, PCBs, lead and arsenic):

  • Metro Water officials were not effective or diplomatic at handling public criticism and fair questions about their project. At one point in 2005, neighbors expressed skepticism about the changes at MWS. That skepticism proved to well-founded in retrospect, given water treatment odors continued for a long time after managers told residents the smells would abate. Also the prospect of selling "the product" of the biosolids process as promised at that meeting was not realized because "the product" was not marketable (caveat: this week I received an email from an energy company official saying that an Arkansas company had recently started buying "the product"). Instead of acknowledging the validity of public concerns, the team MWS assembled seemed defensive and guarded. One person in their group responded sarcastically that the agency existed to dispose of waste, not to manufacture it. That flippant response is particularly ironic now knowing that Metro Water generated a humongous pile of petroleum-laced soil waste that they now plan to bury in their landfill located right here in our midst.
  • Metro Water leadership was not community-minded. At one point in the biosolids meeting well-known Germantown homebuilder Skip Lawrence recommended to MWS leaders that they they hold cook-outs or other social events periodically for the community around the plant to generate good will. I agreed then and I agree now that being more social would represent a greater PR coup than trotting out scripted marketing pro Sonia Harvat to issue talking points to the press. In 2005 the MWS response to Skip's recommendation that I detected was icy and silent. Since then, I am aware of no friendly attempt by Metro Water Services to reach out to the local community. They do not express respect for us. Our recommendations fall on deaf ears.
  • Metro Water Services failed to be transparent with neighbors most affected by biosolids construction. In 2005, MWS leaders were asked if they included anyone who lived in Germantown, Salemtown or East Germantown on the committee charged with choosing designs for the biosolids facility. The admitted that no one in the community was included in that process, although one unnamed individual who lived here was said to have been shown the designs the committee selected. The only time they claimed to invite community feedback was at that one meeting, and as I already reported, they were anything but inviting of feedback.

A logical consequence of callousness.
It is the last bullet that underscores the basic problem with a petroleum pile from the 2004 biosolids building construction still sitting on and planned for burial in public property in 2013. Metro Water Services should have been transparent with us in 2005 and informed us then about the environmental assessment report that analyzed high levels of fuel contamination without naming a source of that contamination. They should have made us aware of the exposure of the petroleum toxins to the groundwater that flows into the Cumberland River. They should have told us of their plans to leave the soil in a pile indefinitely. But they chose to limit our knowledge of their work to designs and drawings of architecture while deflecting our more critical questions. The agency's behavior now confirms the suspicions expressed at the 2005 meeting by the neighbors bold enough to so speak their minds.

After Channel 4 exposed Metro Water's contaminated pile and their plans to bury the soil in the incinerator basement I sent Sonia Havat a letter saying that I remember that she was in the same position with Metro Water in 2005. I also asked her to help me understand why her agency failed at that time to be transparent and accountable about the risks of the soil content since soil remediation was a part of the construction process. It has been 24 hours and I have not received any response to her. That is consistent with my experience of the careless and cavalier culture that seems to drive Metro Water whenever they have to exercise community relations with their closest neighbors. Shame on them.

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