Bristol, TN

Source of 1982 Spill in Raytheon's Green Creek Found

John M. Dabbs

Green Whitetop Creek

Officials at the Raytheon plant of Bristol, Tennessee, were called to investigate a fluorescent green discharge apparently emanating from the Bristol plant. Whitetop Creek, flowing through the plant operating in conjunction with the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command, had turned fluorescent green at one point during the summer of 1982. Plant and government officials investigated the discharge after receiving multiple complaints downstream of the plant.

Plant manager Carroll Leonard remained calm, and knew there was nothing within the plant to cause a colorful leak into the nearby creek. When I interviewed Leonard in the 1990s about the subject for a school article, he expressed a concern about a vehicle in the parking lot leaking into one of the drains, until they saw the volume. They used the plant's fire engine to try and flush the substance from the creek, but it kept flowing for several days.

Government surplus

Unbeknownst to the public, or plant officials, a geology professor in Berea, Kentucky, had discovered some sea dye markers at a government surplus and gave them to some of his nephews in the Bristol, Tennessee area. The professor, who has since retired and wishes to remain anonymous, delivered nearly a dozen such dye markers to his nephews.

Several farmers downstream kept their cattle from the stream until it returned to normal, in spite of government and plant assurances that the creek and water were safe and the substance dying the creek was non-toxic. They didn't know my cousins tied a few dye markers together and threw them into the creek just under and upstream of the Raytheon parking lot.

As a cousin to one of the culprits, I have second hand knowledge of the events. My grandfather is one of the farmers who wouldn't let his cattle into the creek until it began to run clear again. This was even after my grandmother knew it was harmless. My grandfather, who ran Whispering Pines Farm on Vance Tank Road in Bristol, often referred to the toxic nuclear waste the plant was dumping into the water. My grandmother would have to correct him every time. To our knowledge, the operations of the former Raytheon plant kept the water clean as we fished for bluegill found lots of crayfish in our younger days playing and fishing in the small creek.

College pranks

In the spring of 1985 East Tennessee State University experienced a similar event. The creek running through the main campus in Johnson City was dyed fluorescent green - near the St. Patrick's Day holiday. A freshman known to this writer tied a couple of sea dye markers together and threw them into the drain tile under the railroad track adjacent to Buc Village adjacent to the campus. The ETSU Department of Environmental Health investigated the creek and found the dye to be a harmless/non-toxic substance.

Such pranks have been seen in other areas of the country with surplus military equipment. The use of these sea dye markers created quite a stir in the presence of an operational plant in the military industrial complex at the time. The handling of the event at the university in Johnson City was more low key. Even with the event making the school paper, the was already attributed to just another college prank that was harmless.

Changing times

Times have changed, and so has society. Such activities would most likely be addressed differently in today's day and age. Understandably, plants must be diligent in addressing any actions which would make them appear to be acting in a manner inconsistent with legal environmental practices. Accidents within plants are enough of an issue without having to deal with those who would try to implicate them for illegal practices. Such actions could be construed as overt acts against a company, or the community these days.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN
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