Eighteen years ago, Pam Ward got sick. The symptoms — fever, chills, muscle aches and fatigue — were uncommon for an otherwise healthy woman in her 20s. When Ward went to the doctor, their diagnosis left more questions than answers. She was told she had fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disease characterized by chronic pain.
But Ward wasn't satisfied with that answer. At the urging of a friend in Phoenix, she went to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion.
The world-renowned hospital determined that she had high amounts of heavy metals in her body. Beyond that, however, the clinic had no idea why she might be suffering from cadmium poisoning. She visited another doctor in Phoenix, and this time, she says, she was asked a question that no other doctor had asked her before:
"Do you live near an asphalt plant, by any chance?"
Ward spent seven months in Phoenix undergoing chelation therapy, a process by which metals and other minerals are removed from the bloodstream, as she pondered the doctor's question.
She didn't think much of it until two months ago, when she learned of a bill proposed by her Metro councilman, Duane Dominy. It would rezone an 8-acre parcel on Franklin Limestone Road adjacent to nearby Mill Creek, changing its status from multi-residential zoning to a special-use zone that would pave the way for a new asphalt plant less than half a mile from her home.
As Ward now knows, she does live near an asphalt plant — two of them, in fact — and has for decades. Currently, she is among dozens of area residents fighting the proposal, claiming their neighborhood is already besieged by enough invisible particulates. In addition, they say that further development would threaten the Nashville crayfish, an endangered species native to Mill Creek.
"[Cadmium] is not something I look forward to getting close to again," Ward says in the foyer of her home on Franklin Limestone Road. It wouldn't be the only industrial activity in her Antioch neighborhood. She points to a jagged crack in the ceiling that has been patched up and painted white many times over.
"That's from the blasting at the quarry," she says, referring to the regularly occurring shocks from the Vulcan Construction Materials rock quarry located across the street. Ward's neighbor, Karen Kelley, says she imagines that's what living in Los Angeles is like.
"You have to arrange things in your home so they don't fall over when the blasting's going on," Kelley says. "You get used to it."
Even so, Ward and Kelley have spearheaded an effort to prevent further industrialization in their otherwise bucolic community. They've met opposition from Dominy and the zoning bill's co-sponsor, District 33 Councilman Robert Duvall.
"There has and continues to be a lot of misinformation being communicated," Duvall wrote in a recent email blast. "Some of it is hysteria. Some of it is directed at Councilman Dominy for personal reasons, and some of the comments are for personal gain. I can assure you that Councilman Dominy would never support any change that would negatively impact the community, and especially children in the area. He lives just down the street from the proposed site and has three children himself."
Duvall also argued the plant would be a preferred alternative to the use the land is currently zoned for, such as an apartment complex.
"[The] sky is not falling because the plant is moved across the street by 2,000 feet or so," Duvall wrote. "Every argument against this zoning change to date is drummed up bunk, hearsay and hysteria!"
Under the proposed bill, BL-2012-103, land currently allocated for multi-residential use would switch to special-use zoning to permit the construction of what attorney Tom White — a lobbyist for the parcel's owner, Hickory MC Investments, which also owns Hot Mix Asphalt Contractors LLC — calls a "state of the art" asphalt plant that would actually reduce emissions in the area. Further, HMA's extant asphalt plant on Ezell Road will apparently shutter its doors, although the company does not own that land, leading neighbors to question assurances that no new industry will take its place.
Approximately 24 Antioch residents spoke out against the bill during a 50-minute public comment hearing at the March 6 Metro Council meeting. Only four people spoke in favor of the development, including White.
Despite a number of residents who testified to pollution-related health problems, the bill passed 22-15 on second reading, and will be heard on third reading at the next council meeting.
After the comment period ended, however, Dominy said he was "not committed" to the bill. He explained he would allow it to be amended on its third reading and would not "move on it until I visit a state-of-the-art [asphalt manufacturing] facility."
Both Dominy and White cited a Georgetown University study to bolster their claims that asphalt-plant emissions do not contain carcinogens. That report, however, was published more than 20 years ago in 1991, and in its abstract it admits that its sources "all suffer from a lack of data on exposure" and that more research is needed.
More recent studies reveal that emissions from asphalt plants are becoming linked with known carcinogens such as mercury, chromium and cadmium, among many others. According to a 2001 report co-authored by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, the Environmental Protection Agency has "acknowledged that their limited resources" permit the testing of only a small fraction of nearly 50,000 untested chemicals annually. The BREDL study also noted that in neighborhoods with asphalt plants, property values plummeted by 56 percent.
Data from Metro Nashville Air Pollution Control shows that in 2010, the existing HMA plant emitted more than 3 tons of particulate matter. This serves as "vehicles" for the trace amounts of heavy metals produced by the plant, which latch on as they disseminate through the air. Neither White nor Dominy has released data on the level of emissions the new plant is expected to generate.
Nonetheless, Kelley hopes Dominy will "do the right thing," and she tells the Scene that she's talked to elected officials within and outside the council who share her concerns.
"One asphalt plant is more than enough for our neighborhood," Kelley says. "We don't need a new one in our backyard."