How TVA helped to return a site so massive and denuded it was visible from space to environmental health.
When TVA was formed in 1933, a vital part of it’s mission was to remedy the damage done to the earth itself by erosion due to flooding, poor farming methods and careless industry. And one of its most challenging sites was Copper Basin, a vast stretch of scorched earth in southeast Tennessee and north Georgia that was some of the most severe environmental damage ever caused by human enterprise. (So devastatingly denuded was the site that astronauts would later use it as a landmark during space travel, along with the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt.)
When copper mining and smelting began on the site in the 1850s, trees were simply clear-cut to provide fuel for open-pot roasting of copper ore—a process that released high concentrations of sulfur dioxide, which was toxic to any remaining plant life. The burning of pastureland also contributed to the destruction—and eventually 32,000 acres of land (or 50 square miles) were disturbed, and 23,000 acres suffered severe erosion. Deep gullies carved in the earth carried topsoil and subsoil into the three TVA reservoirs of the Ocoee River, damaging the power plants there and causing fish and aquatic life to disappear altogether.
Reclamation efforts began in the 30s, shortly after the formation of TVA. Millions of trees were planted immediately—however, nearly all the productive soil was gone, and there was little or no organic matter to hold water or support plant life. The gullies prevented the use of conventional equipment to prepare the earth for seeding, and the ground’s acidity was hostile to vegetation.
More help would be needed. The soil was treated with lime. Where bulldozers could get in they loosened the soil to a depth of two feet. Helicopters broadcast a mixture of seeds and fertilizers, and ground crews planted trees and shrubs by hand.
After decades of effort, the net result was that 11,025 acres had been returned to productive use, and the annual rate of soil erosion had dropped from 200 tons per acre to eight tons. The area’s streams started to recover and the native fish are were able to reintroduced. Songbirds returned on their own. The work was so difficult and yet productive that TVA received in 1998 the Environmental Grand Award from the International Erosion Control Association.
State and federal partners—such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation—continue to make improvements on the land today. Work will continue until the site is finished in its entirety—except for a few hundred acres of barren land, which will be purposely left that way to show future generations what the consequences of severe environmental neglect can be.