"We'll Never Quit It"

people sitting in a room - black and white

Terri Likens

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 11 No. 1, "'We'll Never Quit:' Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens fight for clean water." Find more from that issue here.

We also wish to thank Chris Nichols and Amy Eppler of Mountain Life and Work for their assistance in editing this article.

Ted Smith

"My mother was born on this creek — and I mean on it. She's told me how her father used to pull his team down in the creek and let the horses drink out of it. Pretty, clear water.

But all of my life that creek's been black. Not every day. I've seen days when you could swim in it, way back when they only turned that stuff loose at certain times, like Friday afternoons, and that creek would run black until Monday. Then they'd shut it off. You'd have three or four days when the water was pretty clear. We'd fish and swim. I waded in it and played in it all my life.

It's got a hell of a lot worse since 1967. I remember when I plowed corn in them bottoms along that creek. You'd see muskrats and mink in that creek. Now you couldn't find a trace of one. They're not there. They've either been killed or they left.

I stood on the banks and I'd see fish. You don't find them now. We had a fish kill here a few years back and it just cleaned that creek out.

I've seen this creek get worse every day in the last 15 years. I've passed it at times when you couldn't bear the smell of it. Tears in your eyes. Throat burning. I've known all my life there's been a problem over there. This just didn't happen yesterday."


In July, 1980, three couples — Larry and Sheila Wilson, Gene and Viola Hurst and Don and Dovie Rose — met at Sugar Run National Park in Bell County, Kentucky, to discuss their common problem: Yellow Creek, a stream that runs through their land, was so polluted that something had to be done to protect their health.

All three couples live on the stream. They had seen their drinking water polluted and their neighbors' health deteriorate. That same year, the Wilsons' well ran dry and they were forced to let their animals drink Yellow Creek water. Soon thereafter, 33 pigs, four goats and seven head of cattle died — apparently from drinking creek water.

These six people decided that they had had enough: they formed the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens — the first organized effort to combat the long-present "black ooze" running through Yellow Creek.

Larry Wilson comments: "There was no real feat in organizing — just getting the word out that somebody was finally going to do something about Yellow Creek." By October, 1980, the group claimed 200 members; now it has more than 400.

In its two-year history, the group has tackled the Middlesboro Tanning Company, the source of most of the creek's pollution; the city of Middlesboro, which is supposed to treat the wastes now flowing into Yellow Creek at its sewage plant; and a host of state and federal officials who have moved slowly to clean up the black ooze. Now the Concerned Citizens have attracted widespread support — and started winning the battle to clean up Yellow Creek.

This is the history of the Yellow Creek residents' long struggle to gain justice and their refusal to give in when officials told them to quit and go home — of a community which has united to fight as a group what they could never successfully fight as individuals.


Winding through 14 miles of Appalachian hillside, Yellow Creek flows north through Bell County, in the southeastern tip of Kentucky, into the Cumberland River; over 1,200 people reside on its banks. For most of the residents of the three communities on the banks of the creek — Meldrum, Colmar and Williams Branch — Yellow Creek has been an integral part of their lives: they've drunk from it, swum in it and caught its fish. Unfortunately, they've also suffered from its pollution.

A better name for the stream might be Black Creek. For as long as anyone can remember, the creek's water has contained what has been described as a foul-smelling "black ooze" that has killed fish, made the water undrinkable and damaged the health of the creekbed dwellers.

Older folks claim they heard tales of black water in Yellow Creek dating back as far as the 1890s — about the time a tanning company opened up on the stream in Middlesboro, Kentucky. The tanning company repeatedly spewed its waste products into Yellow Creek.

Everyone is sure that the black ooze was a persistent reality by the 1920s. Folks grew accustomed to the black water, though they never knew just when to expect it. Maybe after a heavy rain, or when the creek was low and the dead fish began to pile up on the banks. Fish kills occurred regularly, and sometimes the creek would stink so bad that people left their homes.

Still, Yellow Creek was not totally dead, and it remained integral to the lives of the 300 families living on its banks. During the 1930s, the creek provided fish for families too poor to buy food. People bathed in it. Women recall doing the family wash in it. Livestock drank from it, and creek water seeped into wells along its banks.

As late as the 1940s, Yellow Creek had a reputation as an excellent fishing spot, but the technique of fishing was sometimes unique.


Clyde Smith

"I remember when I was about 16 years old, the creek was running a little blacker than usual one night, and the catfish were swimming with their noses atop the water, gasping for breath. That's what it appeared like.

There was a stream of clear water coming off the mountain into Yellow Creek, and these catfish would gang up in its mouth and climb on top of one another, crowding in there fighting over this clear water.

We didn't know the fish weren't clean to eat. We thought the water was making them sick or something and we'd go catch em and eat em.

We'd get us a paper box and a boat. We'd start out to the mouth of this stream until we got up pretty close. We'd just let the boat coast in there. One of us would sit up front with the cardboard box and dip it full of catfish. There were all sizes — anywhere from eight to about 18 inches.

We got all the catfish we wanted in just a little while. We'd pick out what we wanted and throw the rest back in. Then wait a few minutes and they'd be back in there crowding in; we'd make another haul the same way."


Yellow Creek residents have long tried to stop the black ooze. Older people recall that protests began when the tannery first opened in the late 1890s. But the combined might of the tannery owners and Middlesboro officials always thwarted any efforts at cleaning up the problem. The tannery had become the major employer in Middlesboro, a community of 11,000 situated near the mouth of Yellow Creek. Owned and operated by town residents, the tannery became the area's predominant political power.

Sometimes these local protests made a dent in the situation, but they were soon overcome by the sheer power of the tannery — as when a handful of people brought suit against the company in 1953.


Clyde Barnett

"We noticed the creeks were piled full of dead fish. We argued around about it. In a few days another big fish kill came and we all went before the grand jury in Middlesboro.

Every three months they called a circuit court. We couldn't get nothing from the city, so we went to the circuit court. We indicted the tannery company up there, but the company was made up of people from Middlesboro. They were in politics, too.

So when we came to the court, they brought in Fred Seals, the owner — a crippled man — in a wheelchair. Then they called the case. They tried one or two of the witnesses — the soft witnesses. But when it came to the hard core of it, the main proof, the judge said, 'Well, I'm gonna dismiss this case.' So he just dismissed us and left us out in the cold.

We had jugs of water and we had pictures of the dead fish. We had plenty of witnesses there but the judge was just afraid of that man in the wheelchair — him the superintendent of the tannery and the man responsible for it.

That didn't stop us. We tried different times and different things, but we just failed in the county because of the politics. They could do without our vote, but they couldn't do without the city of Middlesboro."


One development held some promise for alleviating the problem: in the 1930s, the city of Middlesboro constructed a treatment plant for its sewage. The primary need for such a system was the tannery, which produces 65 percent of the volume handled by the treatment plant. Unfortunately, the chemicals in the tannery's waste damaged the plant's efficiency; eventually, both tannery waste and fecal matter were regularly flowing down Yellow Creek.

In 1965, the situation became much worse: the Middlesboro Tanning Company began a chrome tanning process which added even more toxic materials to Yellow Creek. The black ooze became a constant presence in the stream. Living next to the creek was like "having an open sewer in front of you," says Larry Wilson.

Soon thereafter, a new wave of protests began.


Gene Hurst

"In 1970, we tried to get the public interest stirred up — myself and Wade Hurst and Duey Brock. By then it was practically a dead stream — no aquatic life.

We were kinda between generations. The older people had quit griping about it. They had never got anything done about it anyway.

We went about it a little differently. We got 142 names on a petition in two weeks. Then we got a hearing in front of a state hearing officer. They summoned the city and the tannery, but the tannery — like always — failed to make an appearance.

The state had several witnesses there. Three of them recommended closing the tannery down right then. Mayor Chester Wolfe made the statement that the city officials would do all they could to ease the pollution, but they would under no circumstances close the tannery.

After that hearing the city received federal grants to upgrade the sewage plant, and in 1975 a new plant went on line. And the state issued a restraining order against the city with a possible fine of $1,000 a day if they didn't straighten up. If there has been one day since that order was issued or the new plant went on line that the pollution was any less, it wasn't noticeable. We still had the stink and color, and the few fish left were dying. It was an open sewage ditch."


By 1980, the situation was totally out of control. The stream of chemicals from the tannery proved too much for the new sewage plant. Studies showed that Yellow Creek contained fecal matter, chromium, zinc and other metals toxic to human health. Soon wildlife biologist John Copeland confirmed a "drastic reduction" in aquatic life in Yellow Creek.

Officials of the tannery and the city refused to accept responsibility for the pollution. They maintained the sewage plant was effectively treating the tannery wastes and that many of the pollutants did not come from the tannery. They also claimed to be working hard to solve the problems. "We do whatever we can to help," stated tannery owner Bob Anderson.

But local residents were not impressed. And they had one more horrifying indication that something was wrong with Yellow Creek: their health seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Tales of unusually high levels of cancer and other diseases abounded in the valley. Other events raised further concerns, like the death of Larry Wilson's animals. People were ready for another wave of protests.


Gene Hurst

"I'd been involved with this thing off and on since 91969. But you take on the establishment one-on-one and you get your head beat in. I was tired of it. And I was ready to quit.

Larry Wilson's son and my daughter were running track. One day he needed a ride home, so Viola ran him by Larry's. She found out Larry was disturbed about what was happening. He had been losing a lot of livestock for no reason he could think of — except they were drinking creek water.

She suggested that I go talk to him. Like I said, I was disheartened — I didn't want to talk about it to anybody or get involved in it again.

One afternoon I went over and introduced myself to Larry. He said the only way to fight bureaucracy is to form a group. Incorporate as a nonprofit organization and go with it from there. I wasn't familiar with that type thing, so I wasn't really interested in it.

I got to thinking about whether we could generate some pressure by a nonprofit organization. I had tried going one-on-one and knew it didn't work. So I got back with him and we decided we'd give it a try. We talked with several people and decided to have a meeting over at Sugar Run National Park. That was in July, 1980.

Larry outlined what he thought the groundwork should be. It sounded good. Everybody else decided it had possibilities. At least it looked better than what had happened before.

We set up a meeting for the next week; I believe we had 15 people. We passed the hat and came up with money to file for incorporation. The next meeting we had 31 people. Then it just snowballed."


The group took the name Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens (YCCC) and started working to end the stream's pollution. Elected president was Larry Wilson, a lifelong creek resident in his mid-forties who had clear ideas on what the group needed to do. They quickly set out to get some action.

Their first step was to circulate petitions calling for a public hearing on the reissuance of the National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permit which regulated emissions from the Middlesboro Sewage Treatment Plant (MSTP). When the EPA held hearings on the permit in October, 1980, the Concerned Citizens had grown to 200 members. EPA representative Howard Zeller explained the agency's recommendation: revoke the old permit and issue a new one requiring pretreatment of material coming into the plant. The Concerned Citizens countered by urging that no permit be issued until the MSTP proved that it could filter waste effectively. The two sides reached an impasse, and the Concerned Citizens walked out on Zeller.

In November, the group got its first chance to take its case to television audiences: members testified at hearings in Frankfort concerning whether or not the tannery had violated state hazardous waste laws. The Concerned Citizens once again demanded relief from the black ooze.

The group kept pressuring the state. In February, 1981, 15 members returned to Frankfort to meet with state government officials. They came armed with eight-millimeter movies of a Yellow Creek fish kill and bottles of black creek water. The officials listened attentively but promised nothing.

YCCC also took on Middlesboro city hall. On March 17, with TV cameras whirring, Larry Wilson leveled eight charges against the city:

"The city is illegally receiving toxic materials into the MSTP.

"The air around Middlesboro is being poisoned by formaldehyde [a claim supported by the National Forest Service].

"The effluent discharged into Yellow Creek is toxic.

"A private industry is being subsidized by local, state and federal tax dollars.

"The effluent contains high levels of heavy metals and other pollutants.

"Wells along the creek have proven to be contaminated — with toxic levels still increasing.

"The city has violated its NPDES permit.

"The city must bear all responsibility for adverse consequences caused by the MSTP's effluent."

The tannery and the city quickly tried to defuse the situation. Tannery vice-president Herb Weinstein passed the Concerned Citizens off as a group of former tannery employees with "some kind of grudge." (Many members had worked at the tannery.) He also raised a direct threat to the community: "The people [of Middlesboro] have to evaluate what's more important — a few carp or the livelihood of the community." Many tannery workers started actively opposing the YCCC's efforts. The Middlesboro Daily News also rushed into the fray. In an editorial entitled, "'Concerned Citizens' and the rest of us should be objective," the paper attacked the YCCC's efforts and defended the city and the tannery.

Viola Hurst promptly dashed off one of the letters she is famous for:


Viola Hurst

"The objectivity in the editorial page of the Middlesboro Daily News leaves me filled with frustration and anger.

I, Viola Hurst, a member of the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens, wish to give an unbiased word or two.

For 21 years, the City of Middlesboro, the State Offices and the Federal EPA have been working with the problems of pollution of Yellow Creek. The State Water Quality and Federal EPA have given Middlesboro Sanitation Department time for improvements. Now, year after year, we the people along Yellow Creek have been sitting and waiting for the proof of these improvements. The proof being no more pollution in Yellow Creek.

Now that we the people in and around Yellow Creek have come together to help with the problems of

People Are Waking Up

Larry Wilson has been the president of the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens since the very beginning. Here he gives his views on how the group works, what has made it successful and what the future holds.


We like to act more than react. We like to force the city council and the tannery and so on to react to something we've done, surprise them — come at them from different directions, using facts, figures and their own statements. Get them to explain those in public. The vast majority of the time they stonewall. We also try to put pressure on the political people like the governor and the regulatory agencies. Sort of shame them into doing something, you know? That's what brought us to where we are and 1 think it's been slow but effective.

The other option is to go straight into the courts — cast the future of the Yellow Creek Valley on the roll of the dice. If the numbers come up in our favor, we've won. If they're against us, we've lost. Both solutions permanent. That seems like too big a gamble. We want to try it in the court of public opinion rather than the judicial system. Because we can win — and have won — that way.

We're getting stronger all the time. We've shown a steady growth rate over two years. People take pride in being members of YCCC.

It's persistence. And to be persistent somebody's got to tell your story. So we have to generate activity that's more or less newsworthy. If we see a TV camera, we jump in front of it.

We don't have any paid staff — it's all a volunteer effort. That puts everybody on an equal footing. We insist on a democratic process. Everybody has a direct voice. They're intimately involved every step of the way.

Education is very important. Every day we are more educated. We've found that we know more about the problem than the officials trying to deal with it, because we've worked hard at it. Our members may not be able to quote chemical formulas to you, but they understand what they're about. A group is never educated as well as they need to be, but I think we're effective with it.

We use the old accounting principle of understatement rather than overstatement. When people start investigating what we said, most of the time they'll find it's worse than the way we stated it. When we first got up in meetings, they'd laugh at us. Now we get up in a meeting and everybody listens.

I gave a city council member a piece of information and told her where she could check it. She said, "We don't have to check it. We haven't caught you saying anything wrong in two years." Credibility is one of the basic building blocks of any group.


We're in a situation where we could become the power structure in this county. We're close to it. That's a dangerous role that I'd hate to see us in. I'd like to see the system work as it should work. I'd hate to see us become the Moral Majority of Bell County.

My whole philosophy on life has changed. Back in the '60s when all the demonstrations were going on, anybody who told me that one day I'd be carrying a sign in front of a government building probably would have had to fight right there. Now I'm doing it and encouraging others to do it. I've got a better understanding of our political system and it scares the hell out of me.

We've got the best political system in the world, but it's got one-sided. Our government revolves around huge corporations; sometimes I think when they tell you to pray to your God, they get down on their knees and say, "Dear General Motors." That scares me, but it can be corrected.

My personal values have changed. Best thing I can leave my kids and my grandkids is a better society. Before it was money. Money doesn't mean a thing to me now. Peace of mind, a happy society where people are doing for instead of to is what it's all about.

If this is radical, then we'd be better off if the whole world was radical.


History will tell you that you can't organize mountain folks. But you can — if the problem is flagrant, if it affects everyone and everybody wants something done about it. It was done back in the '30s when the United Mine Workers were organizing. The situation dictated some sort of drastic action, and they organized quite successfully.

That's the other thing about mountain folks: once they do organize, look out! They stay there — almost forever. It's been 50 years since they organized the United Mine Workers in Bell and Harlan Counties. You still don't dare walk up and down the hollows and speak bad of John L. Lewis. It is something almost sacred.

Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens is becoming that way after two years. As long as we can keep the thing aboveboard and don't get away from our goals and objectives, we can continue.

People are waking up. They're seeing the results of decisions made 20 years ago. They're beginning to rebel against it. This groundswell won't go away. As long as we can have some successes, it will continue to grow and get stronger. The people can't lose. That's been proven everywhere.

the pollution we are 'disgruntled tannery workers of the past.'

We are working within the law to do our best to help stop pollution that has been proven harmful to our health and welfare.

How anyone that is objective to this problem and looks at all the proof and can still remain objective is beyond any human feelings.

I say, if Middlesboro is still improving the sanitation plant, tell me why it isn't the best sanitation plant in the U.S.A.

All the people of Yellow Creek want is the pollution stopped. The only way it will stop is:

First — the people become educated about the laws and regulations on pollution;

Second — the people become educated on what the pollution is, what it can and will do;

Third — See and hear what city, state and federal regulations are and watch all the red tape attached to problems of the people.

Fourth — Informed people are the kind of people who can stand up and fight for their lives and for the future lives of their children.

A parent cannot sit back day in and day out waiting for the agents of our city, state and federal governments to act.

This pollution should not have gone on this long. I'm sure if it was in and around you personally, your livelihood would be more important than a job for someone else.

We the people must unite and fight for the laws to be upheld.

We the citizens of Yellow Creek will go on fighting for our lives.

No one should be allowed to put another person's life in danger. I say now the pollution will stop when the law is obeyed.

The law is for the people — by the people — and is for all the people to uphold no matter who they are."


Arguments like these appealed to local people; the group grew steadily. They were soon buoyed by their first significant victory. In May, 1981, the Concerned Citizens got the Bell County Health Board to post signs along the creek reading: "No Fishing. No Water Contact. Polluted Water." The group also tried out new tactics. It sponsored a 10-mile protest walk from the mouth of the creek to the sewage plant, focusing attention on the city's responsibility to clean up the creek.

It soon appeared that these tactics would pay off. On May 19, the Middlesboro city council passed a new sewage use ordinance limiting the levels of toxic materials that could be pumped into the creek and prohibiting MSTP from accepting any waste that would hamper its operations. Then on June 2, the city voted to supply fresh water to the 1,200 Yellow Creek residents. Mayor Chester Wolfe appointed a committee to work out the financing and delivery of the water.

The next day the Middlesboro Red Cross and the Bell County Rescue Squad hauled a 500-gallon water trailer to creek residents and announced they would keep supplying water until the city council finished its plan. It looked as if the Concerned Citizens would finally have clean drinking water.

However, they quickly found out that the city did not intend to follow through on its promises. The municipal water company informed the rescue squad and the Red Cross, which had received free water for 25 years, that they would have to pay for their water if they kept delivering to Yellow Creek.

Despite the city's action, the two groups soon lined up another water source and kept up their shipments. This show of support meant a lot to the YCCC. "It showed that somebody really did care besides the people that were affected," recalls Sharon Wilson.


The Battle Wages On

"It's like never putting oil in your car," said EPA inspector Herbert Bardin as he announced that his agency had found 13 inadequacies in maintenance and operation at MSTP in July, 1981. The Concerned Citizens focused their efforts on getting the plant shut down or repaired.

They once again asked the state for assistance. At an August, 1981, meeting, Jackie Swigart, secretary of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection (DNREP), confessed that Yellow Creek was the worst pollution problem her department faced, but she rankled the Concerned Citizens with her flippant attitude toward their health concerns.


Sharon Wilson

"We have an unusual number of hysterectomies and miscarriages and stuff like that along the creek. I asked her if I got married if she could guarantee my kids would be healthy. She said no, she couldn't guarantee that, nobody could. Her recommendation to me would be not to get married. I got slightly heated. She asked me what I would do if I was in her place. I told her I'd enforce the law.

She made quite a few people angry. We mentioned that the food in our gardens was contaminated. She said, 'Don't have gardens. Go to the store and buy it.' People around here are not rich. That's why we have gardens, to save money. And I think it is a bit . . . out of place for her to say that. What state official has the right to get up and say, 'Okay, you have problems. Don't get married. Don't have a garden.' You know, quit your normal everyday life."


Undaunted by such insensitivity, the Concerned Citizens soon further demonstrated how insincere the city's promises were. At a September 1 city council meeting, Larry Wilson asked Mayor Wolfe if he intended to enforce the city's new sewage use ordinance.


Larry Wilson

"We were very frustrated because they would never answer questions. We were standing in the parking lot before the meeting trying to figure out what to do. I said, 'Why don't we say we're not gonna leave till we get an answer?' Everybody said,

Why in the Hell Do They Go on Killing Us?

At the heart of the Yellow Creek problem has been the local tannery, for almost a century the area's largest employer. In operation under several different owners since the 1890s, the tannery employs more than 200 workers. It is located on the north side of town, directly across from the Middlesboro Sewage Treatment Plant.

For more than 60 years, it used a vegetable tanning process which did have an adverse effect on the creek, although the damage was apparently not permanent. The fish would die when the black ooze came, but more would return.

In 1960, the tannery was sold by its ailing owner, Fred Seals, to an outside interest which set up the Middlesboro Tanning Company. The new owners immediately started building a new facility with which it could alter its product line from hard leather products like shoe soles and belt and saddle leather to soft leather products like kid gloves and shoe uppers.

In 1965, this facility was set into operation, and blue chrome tanning was introduced to Bell County. It is a procedure that utilizes over 250 different chemicals, many of which are acids or carcinogens or both. The already hazardous workplace situation worsened considerably. The area's largest employer also became its most dangerous employer.


Clarence Turner:

In 1965 they started using the chrome process. It used chrome, acids, and so forth, and from there it goes into the dyes and finishings. People are breathing a lot of chemicals. Lots of people are eat up with chrome. Looks like poison ivy, but it's a skin rash.

I don't have any chrome or skin damage and so far I don't have any lung damage — that I know of. I could have it and not know it.

I worked right in the chemicals — even stuck my hands right down in the pure chrome. Some people walk by it and get eat up. I saw people with solid sores when they raised their shirts — from the chrome.


The tannery has also proved a most dangerous neighbor.


Ted Smith:

I live in the shadows of the tannery. I'm sorta above it and all the fumes from the tannery and sewage plant.

I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't breathe. I just choke to death. The air not only smells bad. When your eyes water, your nose and throat burn and you're short of breath, there's something bad wrong.

I've had to get up in the middle of the night and take my children to the emergency room just smothering to death. Lots of times I took them out there for what I thought was a cold, but it was caused by whatever this is here in the air.


In fact, National Park Service studies have shown levels of formaldehyde as high as 5.34 parts per million in the air around Middlesboro — a potentially dangerous concentration. Though city officials blame other causes like automotive emissions, the formaldehyde levels dropped to zero when the tannery was on strike a few years back. Another problem has cropped up: local people have used sludge from the plant as fertilizer for their yards. About 40 percent of the area's gardens have been fertilized by material containing toxic heavy metals.


Ted Smith:

Roughly six years ago I got 12 pickup truckloads of sludge for my garden. I ate vegetables from that, garden for six years.

One night I got a call from Vanderbilt University, where they were running some tests on the stuff out here. They advised me not to use anything else out of my garden. At the time I had something like 144 quarts of beans canned, peppers, tomatoes, other things we had already canned. But I'm certainly not gonna eat it.

We do know that chromium was one of the big things in the sludge. Lead. God only knows what damage that's already been done.

There's hardly a piece of ground around here that don't have the sludge on it. People are still putting it on their gardens. I saw a neighbor with a load of it two weeks ago.


The tannery also operated a hazardous waste landfill for many years. It was closed by the EPA in 1981. YCCC members claim it still drains regularly into Yellow Creek. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of the plant remains the steady stream of waste that flows into the creek.


Clarence Turner:

When the sewage from the tannery is sent to the sewage plant it's dumped straight into the creek. It contains the chemicals I named before, plus a chemical from the old tannery they call tannin. Every bag has a tag on it that says, "Cancer-causing."

To clean up the creek the tannery would have to pretreat its waste. At one time they did. Then they stopped. As far as I know all they do now is pump it out in the ponds and let it settle. At one time they ran it through screens and took all the solids out. Now they don't.


The tannery also operates 10 acres of waste lagoons separated from the creek by a floodwall. They contain millions of gallons of semi-liquid toxic waste. During heavy rains, this material often overflows into the creek; there is now evidence it is also leaching through the floodwall.

The tannery officials have reacted to the Concerned Citizens with a mixture of indifference and hostility. On several occasions they have denied that a problem exists. But local residents refuse to accept their denials. As Ted Smith concludes, "These people have been in the tannery business since the beginning of time. They've got money to burn. Why in the hell do they go on killing us the way they are? Why?

'That sounds good.' I said, 'But we've got to stay.' They said, 'That's fine.'


We occupied city hall for two weeks. Our numbers grew as we stayed. Soon we noticed all the people paying their sewage bills. Somebody said, 'Let's get a petition. See how many of these people support us.' We came up with 1,200 signatures of people entering city hall. We kinda embarrassed the city council. Their own people — citizens of the town — were supporting this group picketing city hall."


After the two weeks, Wilson again asked Wolfe: "Do you have any intention of enforcing your sewage ordinance?" Wolfe responded, "No, not yet." The group then left for home with further proof of the city's lack of commitment to a cleanup.

On October 7, the state government finally took what seemed a strong step against the pollution: it banned all new sewage connections until the treatment plant substantially improved its effluent quality. However, the city responded to this action as it had to all the others: it ignored the state government entirely. But the ban brought to a boil many of the tensions simmering since the Concerned Citizens first started organizing.


Violence Erupts

On October 8, reported the Middlesboro Daily News, "A bullet narrowly missed Mayor Chester H. Wolfe's head last night while he was sitting behind his desk at his business on North 19th Street." The Concerned Citizens were suspected of being the guilty parties, though many local folks claim that Wolfe was nowhere near his office at the time of the alleged incident.

The Concerned Citizens encountered serious retaliation. On the night after the Wolfe episode, YCCC member Ed Hunter was driving to a meeting with Larry Wilson.


Ed Hunter

"I had noticed a car following me several times before this. On my way to the meeting, the same car was sitting there with its back to me. As I came around this curve and got almost even with it, it flashed its park lights. Then a real bright light came on right in front of me across the road. It was so bright it put my eyes out and I fell in the seat. As I did there was a bullet. I felt like I lost a couple of breaths. We called the sheriff's department, and they sent two men out. They said it was probably a .357 Magnum that shot my windshield. Probably would have hit me right between the eyes if it hadn't been for my reflexes.

In the next few days somebody shot at Larry [Wilson] and Gene [Hurst] with a shotgun while they were out driving. Shot their glass out."


Refusing to be intimidated by the violence, the Concerned Citizens kept up the pressure. On January 7, 1982, the state tried another solution: DNREP Secretary Jackie Swigart signed a new Agreed Order between the state and city requiring that MSTP totally comply with regulations by September 1 and that the plant control the waste coming from the tannery. On February 5 she issued an emergency order to "stop the discharge of inadequately treated waste water" into the creek. However, a week later, state hearing officer Victor Baltell dismissed the emergency order; he did rule the state should draft a new Agreed Order much stricter than the January 7 order.

Like most other state actions, these acts sparked little hope in the YCCC, because there was still no move to enforce the regulations. However, the group continued organizing, and by February had enrolled 341 members; YCCC was now gathering increased support from Middlesboro residents who did not live on the creek but who sympathized with their plight.


Beverly Greene

"The only way this thing affects me is the air pollution. When the YCCC first got started I thought they were gonna close the tannery down. I thought we can't have that — there's gotta be a compromise so the creek can get cleaned up and the tannery can still run. Then the more I read about it, the more I thought, 'If the tannery has to go to clean up Yellow Creek, then the tannery has to go."


The group also looked for allies statewide. In May they hosted a two-day conference which revealed how strong and well-organized the group had become. It attracted a wide variety of participants ranging from city and county officials to Secretary Swigart to representatives of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. Glaringly absent were tannery officials, but most of those who did show up pledged to work with the Concerned Citizens to clean up the pollution.

On July 26, 1982, YCCC members traveled to Washington to testify at hearings of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources concerning the Clean Water Act. They received extensive national media coverage and met with Ralph Nader's staff and other groups who pledged their support.

YCCC members also demanded a speedy cleanup in a special meeting with EPA officials. The officials said they planned to grant a NPDES permit to MSTP and to fund a new sewage plant; however, they refused to require compliance with regulations until after the plant was completed.

The Concerned Citizens instead proposed that EPA issue the permit and require immediate compliance. The group hoped to force the city to shut down the tannery until its wastes met the existing permit's restrictions, and to force the tannery to pay the costs of cleaning up its wastes rather than the city's water customers. The Concerned Citizens also questioned the need for a new facility. They maintained that the existing sewage plant, with some improvements, could handle the city's waste load without a multi-million-dollar new facility — but only if the plant were not saddled with the tannery's highly toxic waste load. EPA set a November 18 hearing on the permit, and the Concerned Citizens started organizing to get people to the hearing.

The group also turned its attention to the most alarming aspect of the Yellow Creek peril: its effects on their health. With the technical help of volunteers from Vanderbilt University's Student Environmental Health Project, YCCC members went door to door through the community, interviewing more than 300 families about their health problems. The results were frightening.


Hotense Quillen

"They all thought they had individual health problems — they didn't. They were all in conjunction with one another. As astronomical as these problems are, it couldn't be coincidental.

To begin with my own: the doctors suggested I have a hysterectomy for a pre-cancerous condition. We doctored and did this and that for 10 years. Then our 34-year-old daughter came along with a complete hysterectomy.

The classic case is the only family that regularly swam in and ate fish out of the creek. They all have — even the 13-year-old girl — lumps in their breasts. They got one girl who's had a total mastectomy. She's got cancer — leukemia — spreading throughout her entire body. She's just waiting to die.

Her mother's had a hysterectomy for a pre-cancerous condition. She's had lumps taken out of her breasts. The father had heart surgery and has thyroid problems. Their children have deformities — eyes bad, parts of fingers missing, and this type of thing.

All down the creek you find women with miscarriages and total hysterectomies and so forth. You're talking about young girls with problems. Mostly lumps in their breasts. Not only them, but their mothers also.

There isn't a family that's been missed by some type of cancer. That just doesn't happen. Diabetes is prevalent in almost every family. Why do so many people have diabetes?

The dividing line is 1965 [the year the tannery started its chrome tanning process]. After 1965 the percentage rate of disease is so much higher that there has to be some factor that's causing it. Cancer, breast lumps, birth defects, miscarriages — they're all noticeably higher."


These horrifying findings prompted local health board official Dr. Emanuel Rader to ask the District Health Department to investigate the situation, and the state government authorized a team from Atlanta's Center for Disease Control to investigate some of the diseases, particularly leukemia.

Shortly thereafter, the YCCC won another major victory: an unpolluted supply of water. In September, the state announced it would spend $568,000 from a federal grant to construct a waterline to Yellow Creek by mid-1984; the Farmers Home Administration will fund the other $285,000. Though hookups to the line will cost up to $250, at least Yellow Creek residents will have a permanent supply of clean water.

Still, the Concerned Citizens knew the waterline would not end the pollution still spewing into the creek. The group continued to demand that the tannery foot its own waste bill. "The city's only in this mess because they take the punishment for the tannery's irresponsibility," charged Larry Wilson.

Here the group had found an issue that united more Middlesboroites with the Concerned Citizens. The city had borrowed $300,000 for repairs on its sewage plant, and the council had raised residential sewer rates an average of 400 percent; it had allegedly increased the tannery's bill only 100 percent, even though a consulting firm had found that the tannery was already paying far less than a fair sewage rate.

One thousand angry people packed an October 18 city council meeting to protest the new charges. City officials tried to blame the rate increase on the Concerned Citizens, but the crowd refused to buy their argument. A newly formed group — the Citizens for a Better Middlesboro — has gotten the rate hike overturned in local court, but the city refuses to refund money collected under the new rate system.

With national attention riveted on Yellow Creek, irate Middlesboro citizens joined the Concerned Citizens for the November 18 EPA hearing on the sewage plant's NPDES permit. Hundreds of citizens packed a school cafeteria to demand that EPA finally clean up Yellow Creek. All the anger, fear and frustration YCCC members have felt during their long struggle spilled over. "If the existing permit had been enforced, we wouldn't be here tonight," snapped Gene Hurst.

To a standing ovation, YCCC members presented the following demands to EPA: that a new permit be issued and enforced within 90 days — with strict penalties for violations; that an

Dear City Councilmembers

By Rick Huffman

Rick Huffman wrote this poem in the fall of 1981 when the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens staged a sit-in and two-week picket at the Middlesboro City Hall to protest the city's inaction in enforcing its sewer use ordinance.


I've asked you once or twice now

and I've asked you very nice now

to stop your durn pollution right away

But you ain't give me no answer

so I'd like to take this chance, sir

and I hope you'll sit and let me have my say.


Now, I can't drink my water

and I really shouldn't oughta

use the stuff to wash my dishes or my clothes

But since I ain't like you'uns

and I can't afford no new uns,

I'll just have to use the stuff and hold my nose.


I'm the kind that loves a fishin'

and I've really been a missin'

Seeing catfish and them basses big and fine

But if you saw a big un, one day,

you couldn't catch him no way

cause the water eats the hook right off your line.


So my young'uns and my missis

have decided this is

the time for all of you to listen here

we're coming to your house

and will only leave when Yellow Creek is clear.

independent party be allowed to monitor the plant; and that an oversight committee including the Concerned Citizens monitor and study all testing. "If you cannot meet these requirements," concluded Larry Wilson, "then require the city to terminate the contract with the tannery and let it apply for its own NPDES permit."

On November 23, the EPA issued an order requiring the city to submit plans for cleaning up the creek and building a new treatment plant; violations of the order carried fines as high as $10,000 and jail sentences of up to one year for city officials. Shortly thereafter, the agency also issued a new NPDES permit requiring more frequent monitoring; though the permit does not require an oversight committee, the EPA did offer to make all data from monitoring available to the YCCC.

Though for the most part pleased by what's now on paper — except for the fact that the EPA still isn't requiring the tannery to take care of its wastes — the Concerned Citizens are now waiting to see if EPA enforces its order. The city missed the first deadline for submitting plans for cleanup, and the Concerned Citizens want some action. "If EPA doesn't enforce the order, we're right back where we started," says Larry Wilson.

This time, however, the group has decided to pressure the EPA directly: it has filed a notice of intent to sue EPA if the agency doesn't prosecute the city for violating the November 23 deadline, and now must wait and see whether the EPA regional administrator finally takes strong action against the city. Meanwhile, the Concerned Citizens are continuing to organize and look for more allies in their multifaceted campaign to clean up Yellow Creek for good.


Though its saga is far from over, the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens have maintained a positive spirit throughout their two-and-a-half-year-long struggle, refusing to give up despite the many delays, lengthy red tape and active opposition it has faced. One lifelong resident of the Yellow Creek community sums up what difference the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens have made and how determined they are to carry on to victory.


Hotense Quillen

"This has been a longstanding issue. It has been handed down from one generation to the next. The foundation had already been laid, but I think it took this generation and its liberalism to bring us together.

People are saying, 'We're not gonna accept this any longer. We're gonna do something about it and this is the only way we can do it — to form a group and start to work on it.'

We've come an awful long way with Yellow Creek. Like the people we've been working with on the health survey. They had just accepted things. Now they're beginning to see that it doesn't have to be that way at all.

If you have a group like the YCCC, people start looking to you. They've had the desire all the time, but seems like you have to form a group before people come to you for help.

We're gonna win. We're not gonna quit, even if it takes us years. We need immediate relief, but we'll be fighting from now on — as long as I live. And hopefully if we don't get it straightened up somebody will be fighting beyond me. We'll never quit it."