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Going DEEP
Michael Ray Taylor
March 03, 2003
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March 03, 2003

Going Deep


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His efforts were unavailing. Despite strong dissent within TDEC, construction of the sewage plant was soon under way. In September 2000 a coalition of environmental groups sued in federal court to stop the town from using federal funds for the plant until an alternative discharge method could be found. Rhinehart attacked the coalition as "a bunch of city people from Nashville" who knew nothing about the Spencer area or the needs of its citizens.

Since no environmental study of the cave had yet been ordered or conducted by the state, area cavers and environmentalists decided to counter the town's efforts by funding a study on their own. Biologist Julian (Jerry) Lewis discovered in Rumbling Falls nearly a dozen species of aquatic cave life found in fewer than 10 other locations in the world—and two small organisms found nowhere else. The discharge of effluent into this cave "would poison it just as surely as if you put arsenic in it," Lewis said. "It would have a devastating impact."

Chris Anderson used $800 worth of flashbulbs to take a panoramic photo of the Rumble Room, which was shown at a press conference in November 2001, weeks before the sewage plant was to be completed. The story of the environmental battle was covered by CNN, Tim Boston Globe and other papers beyond the South. None of the publicity, however, seemed to influence the Water Quality Control Board, which granted a "final" discharge permit for Dry Fork Creek in December. After failing in federal court, environmental groups could only file an appeal in the local chancery court and try to persuade the state legislature's Conservation and Environment Committee to look into irregularities in the permit process.

Rhinehart told the committee that the sewage plant was none of its business. He said, "I just cannot fathom why people that's probably never been in that area very much would all of a sudden make this [their] project. You're jumping on the wrong horse."

Sidney Jones, a TDEC engineer who had advised against the permit nearly two years earlier, resigned over the issue, writing to his supervisor, "The opinions of field staff...who deal directly with the consequences of any problems created by the discharge apparently counted for very little."

A hearing was set for February 2002 in Davidson County Chancery Court. Less than 10 days before the sewage plant was to come on line, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the state's permit process was "substantially flawed by incorrect procedure, and incorrect application and construction of the law." Lyle declared Spencer's permit invalid; the cave was safe.

The war was won, but as far as certain cavers in the Nashville Grotto were concerned, Marion Smith's name was mud.

Mud is the very substance I'm slipping and sliding through when at last I round a corner and spot Smith and the rest of the team gathered on a broad gravel bank. Beyond them, an arch suggesting a Broadway proscenium frames the blackness of Gary's Chamber. The tired photography sherpas have dumped their loads and settled in for a meal before a two-hour shoot. Smith is antsy to survey, and he vanishes into the gloom, his lamp rising like a distant torch as he scrambles up a 100-foot slope.

After lunch I watch the explosive flashes of Anderson's lighting system paint the gigantic room with light. For two or three seconds the vision is seared into my retinas: a huge, gracefully curving space lined with rust-colored bands of limestone, dwarfing the few human explorers strung along its flank. Then the flashes fade, and I am once more in darkness except for the small cone of light projected from my helmet.

Many hours later, I sit alone in the Rumble Room. The last member of the photo team is on rope, nearing the top of the 200-foot wall. I turn off my lamp to savor the silence and darkness that are the cave's natural state. I can barely make out the climbing caver: a single star floating in an empty sky. It will be midnight by the time I exit the cave, after 15 hours inside. Smith won't be out until after 3 a.m.

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