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Earth First! Protests TDOT's Misuse of Funds and Environmental Destruction

STRAWBERRY PLAINS, TN. August 27, 2001--Activists with Earth First demonstrate their growing discontent with the ill practices of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Earth First! Protests TDOT's Misuse of Funds and Environmental Destruction
Earth First! Protests TDOT's Misuse of Funds and Environmental Destruction
August 27, 2001. Knoxville, TN. Today, in front of the Strawberry Plains Regional Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Headquarters approximately 18 activists from Earth First! Formed a blockade as part of an ongoing campaign to stop the building and expansion of Tennessee roads. According to activist Vesna Plakanis (Gatlinburg, TN), If TN linked all of it's roads end to end, they could circle the earth three times. TDOT's web site boasts that TN is home to more roads per capita than any other state in the country.

For Tennessee more roads means increased air pollution and environmental destruction, as well as budget cuts to public service programs such as education. According to protestors, State department budgets have been slashed across the board while TDOT's budget remains untouched, as it has for years. Activists reported that TN ranks 45th in education funding and third in air pollution. Meanwhile TDOT is spending $36,000,000 to expand 2.6 miles of Highway 321 (between Gatlinburg and Cosby), when typically $4,000,000 is spent per mile. Area activists and taxpayers continue to show their discontent as TDOT continues to construct the three-mile expansion. TDOT is operating without the appropriate permits and without having performed an environmental impact assessment. "In preceding construction without permits, TDOT is violating federal law and disregarding federal agencies," says John Johnson of Katuah Earth First!.

The expansion of Highway 321 is destroying the northern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most endangered park in the United States. The key contributor to the endangerment is poor air quality due to the coal plants and traffic. One third of the sulfate emissions that lead to area problems associated with the ozone and acid rain come from the four million vehicles that drive through the park every year. With the expansion of Hwy 321 will come increased traffic, which means increased air pollution and increased sprawl. As it is, According to Eric Plakanis of Gatlinburg, the rain that falls on Clingman's Dome, the highest peak in the park and second highest in Eastern North America, can be as acidic as vinegar. Last year, ozone readings in the area were 126 parts per billion; that's 20% over that which is considered damaging to human health. The environmental stress caused by pollution is responsible for parasites such as the Balsam Wolly Adelgid killing off the forests of the Smokies. John Johnson draws the following analogy, "it's as if the forest has AIDS due to air pollution and acid rain; it's immune system has been compromised and the bugs that are attacking the trees are the death sentence." According to Earth First!, DTOT is carrying out that sentence by aiding in the destruction of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Today's direct action carried out by activists from both Katuah Earth First! And French Broad Earth First! was protest against TDOT's misuse of public funds and destruction of TN's environment. Activists arrived at TDOT headquarters at 6:15 am and positioned a slogan ridden, broken down car in the middle of the entrance road to block admission to the building. In response to employee attempts to go around the car by riding up on the grass around the road, activists formed a human barricade holding signs that read slogans such as "NO NEW ROADS" and "Citizens Demand TDOT Stop Destroying Our Land." As some activists held the barricade, others were busy assisting Kathy Snead of Asheville, NC and Debbie Shumate of Knoxville, TN in locking down inside the car. The two women were chained in to a lock box coming up through the backseat thus making the car immobile. As the lock down was being stabilized TDOT officials began confronting the activists. One man threatened "you see that 'dozer' over there, I'll get it and move that car out the road." Bill of Katuah Earth First! responded by alerting the man of the harm that would be caused to the women locked down inside. The TDOT official said "they better get out" as he slunk back and awaited the arrival of local law enforcement.

The police showed up at 6:40 am and while acknowledging the right to protest, told protesters that they had to move the car as it was interfering with people getting to work. Once informed that the car was unable to be moved, police threatened arrest for all activists on TDOT property claiming it was an unlawful public assembly. After dialogue between Earth First! police support and the authorities, those protestors not locked down retreated to the intersection just up the way. After being threatened with pepper spray, Snead and Shumate unlocked from the vehicle at approximately 7:00 am. At this point at least 12 police cars, a fire truck, and two ambulances were on sight. Traffic was backed up almost the distance of the TDOT entrance road. After the women unlocked, the car was hoisted onto a tow truck. Protestors continued to line the intersection with signs and pass out literature until after 8:00 am.

Two arrests were made, both Snead and Shumate were charged with obstruction of justice, criminal trespass, and disorderly conduct. Bond was set at 10% of bail, $361.00 for Snead and $211.00 for Shumate.