Manager, Media Relations
11/25/2003 -- Knoxville, Tenn. -- An engineer in Tennessee’s highland coalfields recently was awarded his profession’s highest honor for humanitarian service for directing a project that achieved substantial environmental and social improvements in the community. His initiative can and should be readily duplicated by concerned citizens throughout Appalachia.
Barry K. Thacker, P.E., of Knoxville, Tenn., on Nov. 15 received the Hoover Medal, an award created in 1929 to recognize outstanding civic service by a professional engineer. Named for President Herbert Hoover, the first recipient of the award, it is presented by a board that represents five engineering organizations.
Thacker joins a group of luminaries that also includes Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, as well as Alfred P. Sloan (former chair of General Motors Corp.), David Packard (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard), Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. (chair emeritus of Bechtel Group Inc.) and Dean Kamen (“the Pied Piper of Technology,” according to Smithsonian Magazine).
Thacker founded an organization called the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Inc., in 2000 to make lives and the environment better around Lake City in Tennessee’s Anderson County. Decades of coal mining in the region left Coal Creek, a stream that drains a 35-square-mile watershed, prone to flooding, contamination from acidic mine drainage and heavy sedimentation.
Each of these problems affected not only the folks living along Coal Creek, but those downstream, especially those who recognized the natural values of the Clinch River, which Coal Creek joins about three miles south of the Norris Dam, a Tennessee Valley Authority facility. Thacker, a member of Trout Unlimited (TU), hoped to notch water quality improvements in Coal Creek that would boost the trout fishery in the Clinch.
When launching the foundation, which was forged through a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America and the Clinch River Chapter of TU, Thacker organized “Coal Creek Watershed Day.” Designed to generate excitement in the community, the event instead generated controversy. Several local residents turned out to protest expenditures of time and money on wildlife and water quality when the people of the area faced so many other daily challenges.
Thacker explained that he began a conversation with some of the protestors, which grew into a community meeting, where more than 100 people turned out “to give it to me pretty good. I eventually asked them to make a list of things the community needed, and told them I would work with them to tackle these problems … if they would work with me, too.” That list included some common concerns, such as chronic flooding, but it also pointed out deficiencies in the educational and health care systems – considerations that were beyond the scope of Thacker’s original goals.
Undaunted, Thacker and his team of volunteers set out to notch positive change on each point. To lessen the likelihood of flooding, they cleared deadwood and debris from the pilings of 13 old railroad bridges, working under the theory that removing pinch-points would greatly expand the peak flows the creek could handle.
A related problem, Thacker explained, was that Coal Creek “didn’t like to run in one place too long,” meaning that the many alterations to its natural streambed caused the creek to frequently carve new routes. This imperiled residents’ property holdings, mobilized large loads of sediment and increased the likelihood of flooding. Thacker engineered several streambank-stabilization strategies to encourage the creek to run deeper rather than wider, and volunteers devoted scores of hours to install them.
Their effectiveness of their efforts was illustrated last spring, when a 100-year storm ravaged the Southern Appalachians. Coal Creek – usually the first highland stream in the area to flood – stayed within its banks.
Following his belief that to achieve true progress, “you’ve gotta’ do what people care about,” Thacker mobilized volunteers to help improve the region’s public health threshold.
“Boys, you can’t fish every day,” he told retired members of the medical community in the TU Clinch River Chapter in 2001. Then, with their assistance, he arranged the first-ever “Coal Creek Health Days,” on which a long-closed health clinic was cleaned up and reopened, and the gymnasium of Briceville Elementary School – which Coal Creek runs past – was turned into a giant dentist’s office. Tennessee Valley Authority and TU volunteers treated students to creek exploration expeditions while they waited for their turns in the dentists’ chairs, attempting to make clear the parallels between personal and environmental health.
The volunteers’ commitment to public health improvement is ongoing, as regular checkups are provided for free at the school and the clinic is opened at least one day each week. And “Coal Creek Health Day” has become an annual event.
To address what he sees as the “key problem” in the community, the foundation has created the Coal Creek Scholars Program, which is dedicated to elevating the numbers of college-bound students from Briceville Elementary. The Coal Creek region dramatically trails national and state averages for high school and college graduation rates. For example, the 1990 U.S. Census showed that 66 percent of adults in Tennessee graduated from high school, compared to 17 percent of adults in Coal Creek. Sixteen percent of adults in Tennessee graduated from college, as compared to 0.5 percent of adults in Coal Creek, also according to the census.
To fight these trends, the program has to date awarded a total of $22,000 in scholarships to high school students, but the foundation strives to do more than just award money. Volunteers also offer guidance and assistance in preparing college/technical school applications, contact university admissions officers to inform them of the scholars program and lead field trips to campuses so students see firsthand what academic opportunities could appear on their horizons. Volunteers also encourage students to get involved in a variety of community service projects.
The only stipulation the foundation attaches to its scholarships is that recipients return to their former high schools to give presentations as mentors. Because so few in the community have attended university, Thacker said, the Coal Creek Scholars are often the first peers the high school students know to have made the jump to higher education. The presentations make such a goal seem more attainable.
The scholars program does not confine its efforts to high school students. It also works with Briceville Elementary, taking kids on field trips to local sites of historical importance and teaching them to take pride in their coal mining heritage.
With the social elements of its programs in place, the foundation will devote more time in the near future to elevating Coal Creek’s water quality, said Thacker, who plans to aggressively lobby the members of Congress who control abandoned mine land reclamation funds. He hopes that if government funding can be secured, his professional reputation within mining-industry circles will convince the holding company that controls much of the scarred land in the Coal Creek watershed to partner with the foundation in cleanup efforts. Thacker explained that the holding company is hesitant to join such a partnership because government funding cycles and environmental groups are often immobilized by infighting.
Thacker, therefore, needs a strong government commitment, and he is certain the foundation’s efforts will avoid common pitfalls. By placing the needs of the community first, and “making sure we’re doing this as friends or not at all,” Thacker believes he has built a strong and lasting basis for positive change.
Mission: Trout Unlimited is North America’s leading coldwater fisheries conservation organization, dedicated to the conservation, protection and restoration of trout and salmon fisheries and their watersheds. The organization has more than 130,000 members in 450 chapters in North America.