The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

High-profile cleanup to commence on South Knoxville Superfund site, but what about the other toxic sites?

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Smokey Mountain Smelters siteSmokey Mountain Smelters site is seen in this EPA file photo. Work has commenced on cleaning up this particular Superfund site, but South Knoxville residents are wondering about the fate of the other highly toxic sites along Maryville Pike.

Vestal community leans into future of multiple South Knoxville Superfund sites 

KNOXVILLE — City residents are discussing the future of the Vestal community’s toxic sites after a long history of industrial use and activism that recently led to federally funded action to clean up at least one infamous Superfund site.

Vestal community resident Cathy Scott shared the history of each of these sites near Maryville Pike at South Knox Community Center during two Vestal Community Organization meetings related to the cleanup of multiple Superfund sites on the south side of the city.

She said in an email to Hellbender Press that much of her information came from John Nolt, formerly of the University of Tennessee Philosophy Department and author of the essay “Injustice in the Handling of Nuclear Weapons Waste: The Case of David Witherspoon Inc.,” which is chapter three of the book “Mountains of Injustice: Social and Environmental Justice in Appalachia.”

While the EPA is focusing on the Smokey Mountain Smelter site, Scott, Nolt and others have discussed other properties and their effects on nearby watersheds. The sites are all connected to the Witherspoon family. They are at are at 1508 Maryville Pike; 1630 Maryville Pike and adjacent land; 901 Maryville Pike and 4430 Candoro Ave. The meetings took place Feb. 13 and 22.

“It was a phenomenal accomplishment of community collaboration,” Eric Johnson, president of Vestal Community Organization, said of the two meetings. 

Nolt explained in his essay that he had been involved since his time as vice president of Project Witherspoon, an organization formed in 1989 to pressure the federal government on the sites’ cleanup. He told Hellbender Press in an interview that he got involved because his daughter’s birth made him think about the future.

“I’d like to see some punishment for the people who created this mess,” he told Hellbender Press about the properties. “These people get away with what are essentially crimes.”

Smokey Mountain Smelters

The Smokey Mountain Smelters site at 1508 Maryville Pike recently got the attention of the EPA, which stated it has funds through the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Waste on this site includes dross and saltcakes. Scott and others have expressed concerns about its effects on Flenniken Branch and fishing spots at I.C. King Park. 

Scott said the site was an agricultural chemical company in the 1920s before it passed through various ownerships including Daniel E. Johnson and David Witherspoon Jr. in 1979.

Witherspoon’s father David Witherspoon Sr. founded the company David Witherspoon Inc. which owned some of the other sites of concern along Maryville Pike. Witherspoon Jr. took over his father’s company in 1973.

David Witherspoon Inc. 1630 Maryville Pike

The 1630 Maryville Pike David Witherspoon Inc. site, Scott said, is also in the Flenniken Branch watershed. The site includes the Screen Arts Building, the adjacent “hotfield” and a landfill nearby on the other side of Maryville Pike. The News Sentinel recently reported this landfill had a damaged cap, on which Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is currently working.

Scott said the area was for the “sorting and recycling of millions of pounds of scrap metal contaminated with radioactive isotopes,” specifically uranium and thorium. Nolt in his chapter explained that the Atomic Energy Commission, later DOE, plants in Oak Ridge sold scrap metal and machinery to David Witherspoon Inc. The company also took other radioactive or chemically contaminated materials from other corporations and cites.

Scott gave a timeline of this site, drawing on Nolt’s research. Scrap metal with radioactive isotopes, along with asbestos came between 1960 and 1984. While the facility received a permit for smelting radioactive materials in 1968, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation reported safety violations including handling material contaminated with yellowcake uranium. Witherspoon Jr. took over in 1973 as company president, and the landfill officially closed. Still as late as 1983, Nolt said, Tennessee officials found evidence of illegal dumping there. The state ordered a cleanup of the hot field acre in 1980.

While the Tennessee Department of Health and Environment ordered Witherspoon to dispose of its barrels of waste or pay a $50,000 fine, Scott said, Witherspoon argued that no facilities would accept that kind of mixed waste.

The radioactive sites joined the Tennessee Superfund List in 1990. Two tire fires broke out at the site in 1992, Scott said.

901 Maryville Pike, former waste storage

Another polluted site connected to the Witherspoons that Nolt and Scott listed is at 901 Maryville Pike, also known as Witherspoon Recycling. Nolt described it as about 10 acres and Scott described it as in the Goose Creek Watershed. Nolt said Witherspoon Recycling separated iron from other metals with a magnet on the site.

“Throughout the years, Witherspoon sold much of the contaminated iron scrap to the Knoxville Iron Company. What became of it after that is not known,” Nolt stated.

Nolt stated DOE took some of the site’s barrels back to Oak Ridge federal areas but left behind over 200 barrels containing toxic PCBs. He wrote in his essay he saw “leakage and spillage” from these barrels in the early 1990s.

In 1990, Project Witherspoon, Nolt’s organization, marched near the site with “well over 100 people,” Nolt said. Senator Albert Gore Jr., who would later become vice president, spoke at Mary Vestal Park in favor of investigation of all the Witherspoon sites.

Witherspoon received a $3,000 fine from Knox County Air Pollution Control Board in 1993. The state of Tennessee filed an action to halt operations  at 901 Maryville Pike that same year. By 1999, a DOE report warned of high mercury and PCB levels in Goose Creek’s sediments and soil. Nolt described field studies from the mid-1990s as finding levels of “lead, mercury, chromium, beryllium, antimony and several organic compounds” higher than state standards. He described plutonium in the groundwater which he said was “an element that normally does not occur in nature.”

“In every scenario, the excess cancer risk and/or non-carcinogenic hazard index exceeds EPA thresholds, indicating unacceptable hypothetical and future risk,” DOE reported in 1999.

Nolt reported in his essay that 15,700 truckloads of debris left 901 Maryville Pike and headed back to Oak Ridge in the mid-to-late 2000s

Candoro site

Scott also spoke about the Candoro site next to the Candoro Arts and Heritage Center which Witherspoon Jr. and Jerry V. Sternberg owned. The site never got tested for radioactivity or toxic chemicals and wasn’t a focus of Nolt’s chapter. Still Scott in an interview described it as a “mess.” The parcel is at 4430 Candora Ave. Eric Johnson with Vestal Community Organization described it as a former manufacturing area, and Scott talked about its history with the marble industry. Johnson said it’s been vacant for over a decade. 

Dax Witherspoon, a member of the same Witherspoon family who have been involved with the other sites purchased it recently, Johnson said, and is currently suing the city to allow for the site to be rezoned for heavy industrial use, a request which the City Council previously denied. Rogers Group signed an agreement, Johnson said, to dump gravel at the location, which isn’t allowed in current zoning. At present, Johnson said, the property is a “passageway” to a different site at 719 Candora Ave. where zoning allows for gravel storage.

Despite Scott’s repeated criticisms of his family, Witherspoon attended both of the February meetings and spoke to Johnson personally after the second meeting. While Hellbender did not get a chance to talk to Witherspoon, Johnson said Witherspoon is open to selling the land to the Aslan Foundation, which has been involved in preserving other land in South Knoxville such as High Ground Park and the Fort Dickerson Quarry.

“It’s only natural that they would move down the hill,” Johnson said of the foundation. 

“Dax is ready to drop out of letting Rogers dump all that gravel,” Johnson said, although he said the price Witherspoon was charging for the land was expensive. 

Johnson said he’d seen historic equipment that was of interest at the site. 

“We’re talking about pieces of equipment that can’t be duplicated,” Johnson said. However, he said other observations of the site concerned him.

 “I saw hydraulic fluid and some crazy-looking funny chemicals,” he said. “I saw some stuff that to me was a little scary,” he said.

Scott and Johnson described their desire for nonindustrial uses of the property at the meeting and in later interviews. However, the public at the meetings came to no definite decisions.

“Not industrial because the properties that line these sites are the poorest properties,” Scott said when she described her hopes for the area. Similarly, Johnson talked about the Vestal becoming more residential.

“Sixty years ago, people lived here, and they worked here. In many cases they walked to work. Well, Vestal is now a residential community and less industrial,” he said.

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