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Copper Basin Reclamation Project

picture of copper basin before reclamation

The Copper Basin before reclamation.

It’s been said that the scorched earth of the Copper Basin once formed such a vast scar on the planet’s surface that astronauts used it as a landmark visible from space.

Whether or not that’s true, it is certain that this area of southeast Tennessee and north Georgia has suffered some of the most severe environmental degradation ever caused by human activity. When copper mining and smelting began in the 1850s, trees were clear-cut to provide fuel for the open-pit roasting of copper ore. In turn, that process released concentrations of sulfur dioxide that were toxic to plant life. Cattle grazing and the burning of pastureland also contributed to the destruction.

picture of copper basin after reclamation

The Copper Basin after reclamation.

Eventually 50 square miles of land (32,000 acres) was disturbed, of which an estimated 23,000 acres suffered from severe erosion. The topsoil and subsoil washed away, and deep gullies were carved in the bare earth. The soil runoff accumulated in the three TVA reservoirs on the Ocoee River, damaging the power plants located there and causing the fish and other aquatic life to disappear altogether.

Reclamation efforts

Attempts by TVA, other agencies, and the mining companies to remedy the devastation began in the 1930s, and millions of trees were planted over the years. In 1984, when 12,612 acres of land was still classified as critically eroded, TVA and its partners initiated the Cooperative Copper Basin Land Reclamation Project to tackle the work that remained.

The challenge was great: nearly all the soil was gone, so there was little organic matter to hold water or support plant life. The gullies prevented the use of conventional equipment to prepare the earth for seeding, and the ground’s acidity was inhospitable to vegetation.


First the soil was treated with lime, either blown on or applied by helicopters. Where bulldozers could get in, they loosened the soil to a depth of two feet. Helicopters broadcast seed mixtures and fertilizer, and ground crews planted tree and shrub seedlings by hand.

Some 11,025 acres of land has gradually been returned to productive use, and the annual rate of soil erosion has declined from 200 tons per acre to eight tons. The area’s streams are beginning to recover, and native fish are being reintroduced. The Ocoee River, now a premier attraction for whitewater enthusiasts, was the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater competitions.

For its work on reclaiming the Copper Basin, TVA received the 1998 Environmental Achievement Grand Award from the International Erosion Control Association, a nonprofit professional group. It’s estimated that the remaining work will be completed by 2005. About 100 acres of barren land will be left unreclaimed to demonstrate for future generations the consequences of severe environmental neglect.



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