MagazineMarch 2009Ocoee Disaster

Ocoee Disaster

Daniel Strother was among kayakers who had just taken off a high water run on east Tennessee’s Ocoee River on January 4 when the tons of foul-smelling muck flushed downstream.
“It was quite a sight to see: thick, black noxious water where normally our beautiful whitewater is,” said Strother, 20, a raft guide from nearby Canton, Ga. “There were no whitecaps whatsoever on breaking waves, just straight blackness.



The Tennessee Valley Authority released the sludge from a dam upstream, fouling the Olympic Whitewater Course.
Just hours before Strothers took to the rapids, TVA workers opened a sluice gate on the utility’s Ocoee #3 Dam to draw down a reservoir and make repairs on Ocoee #2 Dam.


The manmade whitewater channel, site of canoe and kayak events for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, was “suddenly overwhelmed by muddy sludge that was black and smelled terrible,” U.S. Forest Service officials reported.

TVA did not secure state permits beforehand, nor did they notify Forest Service officials that the foul flow was headed downstream. TVA officials say they were not required to get permits.


Paddlers such as Strother and Robert Bone, 38, of Wesser, N.C., were outraged. Although state officials say most of the sediments have been flushed downstream, boaters worry effects of the spill will linger.


What all this means for the Ocoee’s beleaguered ecology remains to be seen. The sediment sitting on the bottom of the river’s reservoirs is laced with heavy metals and other pollutants from copper smelting in the last century.

“What makes this an even larger tragedy is that life had just started to return to the Ocoee after 70 years of manmade destruction and dewatering,” said Bone, who has kayaked the Ocoee since 2001 and guided rafts there in 2006.

The spill decimated fish and clogged the $17.5 million manmade whitewater facility with muck as deep as 3.5 feet in places, said officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).


“Due to the magnitude of the sludge release, fish were killed and washed downstream or killed and buried in the sludge,” wrote Dr. Richard Urban of TDEC in a citation to TVA.


TVA issued a statement through its spokeswoman, Barbara Martocci, saying that the utility would decide if any cleanup is needed.


Martocci said TVA uses the same dam sluice about 40 times each year for recreational water releases and is not required to notify the state to do so. With heavy rains in the forecast, the utility opened the sluice to drain the upstream reservoir so workers could safely make repairs on the #2 dam.


TDEC determined TVA violated state rules but has not yet issued any fines or penalties for the spill.

Places to Go, Things to See: