It made for a testy news conference Tuesday when Army Corps Brigadier General Rick Kaiser came to Old Hickory to tour the dam with Congressman Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.
Greeting the general’s arrival was a line of protesters with hand-painted signs on the one narrow road that leads to the lock and dam, as well as an adjacent beach and recreation area.
At a podium at the water’s edge, Cooper went first.
“It seems to be nearly unanimous, on a bipartisan basis, that the elected leaders of Davidson County think this proposed quarry is not just a bad idea but a terrible idea,” he said. “No one really knows … the risk of blasting near the levee.”
Quoting from an Army Corps letter in response to his questions, Cooper warned of dangers to the dam, beach-goers, boaters and neighbors.
“There are many not-in-my-backyard issues in America. And we’re used to those,” Cooper said. “But this is bigger and deeper than that. This is about the future of Nashville and about the safety of Nashville.”
Cooper wants Kaiser to intervene for the dam’s sake. But the high-ranking civil engineer and explosives expert — dressed in camouflage fatigues — said emotions were getting in the way of scientific evidence.
“Sometimes good science just doesn’t brief well,” Kaiser said. “My main priority is, number one, the safety of this structure known as Old Hickory, and the safety of those who are affected by this project.”
Several times, Kaiser slowed his remarks to define the engineering terms that he said have been subject to “misinformation.” He urged local officials and residents to read the technical report that the Corps recently put online.
“Nobody knows this lock and dam system better than the people — who have spent 30 and 40 years of their life — that are dedicated to running it,” Kaiser said. “Nobody wants to see this property damaged. And I promise you that it will not be damaged.”
Kaiser and Cooper debated back and forth on soil quality, ground vibrations, the potential for flying rocks and even the history of the dam — and no matter the detail, they did not agree. There were several insinuations — and some barbs — all proffered from the podium as the other stood just a few feet away.
When Cooper drew parallels to a dam dispute in Dallas, Kaiser was well-versed and ready to point out differences.
The exchange escalated when state Rep. Bill Beck cast doubt on the general’s visit, reminding the crowd of the 2010 flood.
“I’m not sure really what we’re doing here today besides the general telling us, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ just like they told us six years ago when we flooded downtown Nashville and down stream,” Beck said. “This is the same crew that told us there’s nothing to worry about at that time.”
Several more “fact checks” followed, with the general eventually calling local dam safety expert Michael Zoccola to speak in response to Cooper and Beck.
“Our report,” Zoccola said, “does not say we’re going to kill people on the beach or boaters in the lake.”
After about 25 tense minutes, the congressman and the general entered the dam property for a tour together — riding in separate cars.
Locals Remain Dissatisfied
After the conference, Vice Mayor David Briley tried to speak with the general concerning a specific question drawn from the much-touted report.
Although he didn’t get an answer, saying the general was “in a rush,” Briley recounted what he thinks could be an inconsistency in the mathematics. He said the report warns against a certain velocity of blasting, but then signs off on the quarry near this dam.
“What people should be most concerned about is they make a mistake and we all pay for it — that they blast bigger than they’re supposed to and we all pay for it,” Briley said. “It’s just the kind of thing that government needs to do a better job of: that the single land owner isn’t pushing the burden of their operation out on everyone else.”
Protesters stuck it out along Swinging Branch Road, where Jerry Spickard used plywood and old wooden pallets to write messages to Kaiser, the general.
“He needs to err in the way of public safety. And it’s not just us in Old Hickory. It’s all of Nashville and beyond,” Spickard said. “I wanted to show him how much I care. And you know, hopefully it would sink in.”
“If that dam breaks, Nashville’s not gonna have a chance,” said neighbor Ronnie Baker. “They ain’t gonna get a fair warning about nothing. It’s going to be a bigger flood than the 2010 flood was.”