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White Trash, Please Go Green

If the Percy Priest Lake islands could talk, they’d say, ‘Give a hoot, take your damn loot’



There are few, if any, places in Nashville where antique trash is as plentiful as it is on the islands of Percy Priest Lake, where boaters have the privilege to camp out for up to 14 days at a time. There are Sterling beer cans with pull-tab tops that are older than some of you reading this column. (In fact, this brew isn’t even made anymore.) There are booze bottles so venerable they look like old-fashioned apothecary containers, bait canisters, oil cans, tires and Styrofoam coolers that can be dated to the 1970s. (It takes a million years for Styrofoam to decompose, by the way.) All of that is to say nothing of the more recent detritus—flip-flops, grills, beer bottles, dirty diapers, cigarette butts—left by thoughtless rednecks who view these islands not as a precious commodity to be protected but as their own private squatting station, a weekend alternative to the doublewide.

In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Percy Priest’s 24 islands and 213 miles of shoreline are polluted with as much as 200 tons of trash that its visitors (there were about 7 million of them last year alone) have left behind. Worse, officials say that about 100 times more has sunk to the bottom of the lake since it was created in 1968.

There’s not much to be done about the Jif jars, aluminum cans, boat parts and other assorted debris that are no doubt a nuisance—or worse—to the lake’s aquatic life, but the contents of all the land-based rubbish leach into the soil and water, threatening both the habitat and the wild creatures who inhabit this recreational treasure. The pot-bellied pigs that have somehow propagated there may enjoy the occasional leftover chicken parts, but the crested flycatchers and red-bellied woodpeckers are hardly resplendent nesting on top of ancient glass bleach bottles and Quaker motor oil canisters.

The solution, of course, is simple: Boaters and campers need to take out what they bring with them, leaving the landscape free of their footprint, just as hikers in the Smokies—or Westernly types who really understand—are required to do. But over the years, visitors have ignored this mandate from the Corps, which doesn’t have the resources to keep the area clean and can’t possibly police all comers to the islands.

Watching a Corps of Engineers veteran steer his boat up to one of the more littered islands, only to find himself walking amid acre after acre of driftwood and flora that would be beautiful but for the staggering amount of human-imposed debris among it all, is akin to seeing a homeowner surveying devastating fire damage. “Some people know what they have here, that it’s a privilege to use these islands,” ranger and conservation biologist Mark Vaughan says, shaking his head. “Others, unfortunately, just don’t.”

Which brings us to the heartwarming part, if it can be found amid the discarded olive jars and—WTF?—air conditioner parts: A group of Nashvillians—individuals, corporations and environmental groups such as the Cumberland River Compact and Team Green adventure club—have created the Nashville Clean Water Project and have planned a lake cleanup for this Saturday, specifically targeting 20 tons of trash on some of the most-used islands. Waste Management has volunteered to haul off the garbage and arrange for qualified material to be recycled.

Volunteers are asked to gather from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Nashville Shores (4001 Bell Road) and to register in advance (at cleanPercyPriest.org), as the logistics of this largest water cleanup in Nashville history will require boating folks out to and back from the islands. For their efforts, they’ll get a T-shirt, a concert from Grammy recording artist Kathy Mattea and the privilege of waging a counter campaign against white trash Charlie and his Longnecks.

“If we can create awareness about the problem, then we’re more likely to influence the behaviors,” says my buddy Mark Thien, thinkMEDIA founder and one of the organizers, who hauled me out to the lake last week to see an unseemly side of human nature. “We’d rather that than have to come out each season to clean other people’s trash.”

And just before you think you’re too busy to pitch in (or pick up, as it were), you can make a contribution and seed the Nashville Clean Water Project’s continued work. (Plans call for scuba teams to tackle Priest’s underwater mess.) Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Nashville Clean Water Project, c/o the Cumberland River Compact, P.O. Box 41721, Nashville, 37204.

While this is the largest water cleanup in Nashville history, it’s going to take more than one.Click here for the full slideshow. 

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