A state environmental official who said unfounded water quality complaints could be considered acts of terrorism has been demoted.
Sherwin Smith, who was formerly deputy director of the Division of Water Resources, has been returned to a lower-ranking position with a program that helps fund water projects in the state, said Meg Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Smith had been deputy director of the Division of Water Resources.
At a May 29 meeting in Columbia, Smith was recorded telling a meeting called to discuss water quality complaints in Mount Pleasant that people who complain need to be certain there's a basis for it.
In the audio recording provided by the environmental group Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, Smith says: "... You need to make sure that when you make water quality complaints you have a basis, because federally, if there's no water quality issues, that can be considered, under homeland security, an act of terrorism."
Lockhart said Smith indicated he was thinking about the Patriot Act when he made the reference to terrorism.
"While the definition of terrorism in that Act is very broad, complaints to this department concerning drinking water quality, valid or not, clearly do not fall within it," she said. "Mr. Smith has apologized, and both he and the department regret that the comment was made."
The environmental group issued a statement lauding the department's action.
"In the wake of the inflammatory statements made by former TDEC Division of Water Resources Deputy Director Sherwin Smith, SOCM members would like to thank TDEC officials for responding so quickly to residents' concerns about the intimidation tactics Mr. Smith used in that unfortunate instance," the group said.
However, the group accused the department of not adequately testing Mount Pleasant's drinking water, which residents have described as sometimes cloudy. They also cite two boil water notices in the past year or so.
TDEC has tested the water and believes that it is safe, but the department has said it's willing to test the water of any resident who has a complaint.
In the statement this week, Lockhart said the department has attempted to contact 70 people who submitted water quality complaint forms collected by the environmental group.
"None of the citizens contacted were currently experiencing issues and were encouraged to promptly contact us should a problem arise," Lockhart said. "Since receiving those complaints, no one has contacted us regarding water quality issues or requested for us to conduct water sampling in their homes."
Lockhart said 20 additional sites in Mount Pleasant were sampled June 27. All results were negative for total coliform and E. Coli bacteria.
However, the environmental group wants the department to test for more pollutants — such as lead and arsenic — and commit to testing the water periodically over a number of months, as well as continue to meet with community members on a regular basis until the issues are resolved.
Residents are also upset by the sewer rates, which they say have increased dramatically in the last year.
"The main concern of the residents involved in this work in Mt. Pleasant continues to be focused on the quality of the water as well as the high cost of water and sewer rates, and we look forward to working with TDEC to ensure that every resident of Mt. Pleasant feels comfortable drinking their water and to working with the city ... to find an alternative to the high water and sewer rates that make residents' bills unaffordable," the group said.