Passing through Gatlinburg, TN, last year on his way home from a trade show in Kentucky, Bob Jerszyk came upon an unusual sight: two pieces of heavy equipment plowing around in a streambed. They weren’t just passing though, either: one was moving boulders in the stream near the site of a new bridge under construction. “The other one,” says Jerszyk, “actually was being used as a dry platform for the bridge inspector. The guy got in the bucket and they wheeled him out there so he could look up underneath the bridge.”
Jerszyk, owner of Bob Jerszyk Landscapes in Millbury, MA, found the situation astonishing enough that he was inspired to reach for his camera. “Every month I see a page in the magazine showing the Erosion Control Patrol, and every month I say to myself, ‘It’s not nice to be a whistle blower, tattletale, fink, rat, snitch, or whatever word fits your age bracket. But this time I had to say something.”
Besides the fact that the machinery was churning up sediment in the stream, “I don’t think they had any idea how serious a hydraulic hose break could be,” Jerszyk says of the equipment operators. “They had no precaution—nothing ready in case a hose broke, a machine tipped over, or oil or diesel fuel spilled. A hydraulic hose break, or a ruptured pump, could have put 20-30 gallons of fluid in the water.”
The digital photos he took don’t reproduce clearly for publication, making them look like something that might have been taken from a hidden camera or a spy satellite. But in fact, Jerszyk was a lot closer and in plain view. One of the equipment operators, watching Jerszyk focus the camera, quickly put on his hardhat. “They thought I was from OSHA,” Jerszyk recalls, “and they were more afraid of OSHA than they were of any environmental impact. They had no idea they were in violation of anything.”
“Obviously the contractor was cutting corners. The correct way to do it would have been to have a staging for the bridge inspector, and the correct way to remove the boulders from the stream would have been to have a machine that could reach from the shore,” Jerszyk notes.
“I started taking pictures, and one guy actually waved.”
About a hundred yards downstream from where Jerszyk took these photos was a group of trout-fishing tourists. That, and the town’s idyllic location, made the blithe disregard for the potential consequences seem all the worse. Nestled up against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg lies not too far from the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Cherokee, NC, and just down the road from Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN—in fact, the Dollywood Trolley runs through Gatlinburg’s main streets. Although the town’s population is less than 4,000, its hotels and campgrounds can accommodate 35,000 people a night, and more than 9 million people each year visit the national park.
“Is the Clean Water Act a federal law, or what?” challenges Jerszyk. Well, yes it is, but the enforcement of it—passed to the states as an unfunded mandate and eventually to regional and county authorities—is notoriously uneven. “I’m in New England, and if we ever got caught with a machine in the water here, it’s a $250,000 fine,” he points out. “That’s more than the cost of the machine.”“What shocked me was that Tennessee is Al Gore’s home state, and he’s the environmental candidate. You know what I’m saying? I mean, I’m a Democrat too, and I was shocked.”