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Centennial Park littered with thousands of cigarette butts


It's Nashville's showcase park - a park the city is spending millions of dollars to upgrade - but at the feet of the beauty, history and recreation is a park suffering from a nasty little secret.

Centennial Park boasts unmistakable beauty. Its gardens and ponds surround a majestic full-size replica of the Parthenon.

But there are also thousands of cigarette butts left littered and discarded all over the park, sometimes in surprisingly deep piles.

"The issue is litter to an extreme measure in this park. It's illegal. The objects are small, so they are easy to overlook and easy to ignore. I think our local leaders have done a tremendous job of ignoring the problem," said Mark Thien of the Nashville Clean Water Project.

Thien has been on the case for a year, making home videos, meeting with city leaders and trying to share his message that this nasty problem needs attention.

He contends it's more than a nuisance. It's a health problem.

"All of these toxic chemicals in these butts, in the filters and the remainder of the tobacco, is leeching into our water. Most of the cigarette butts wash into storm drains in Nashville. And storm drains flow directly into fresh water. What that means is your drinking water," Thien said.

Some may be skeptical that cigarette butts are all that dangerous, but water experts are adamant.

"It's a little, concentrated toxic waste dump we're putting down in the ground. One probably wouldn't be a problem, but it's a hundred thousand or a million. So it's a huge potential source of pollutants," said John McFadden of the Tennessee Environmental Council.

To see how Centennial Park became such an ashtray, look no further than nearby Centennial Medical Center. It's a non-smoking campus, so there isn't a single smoking area in the entire facility. Offices for Hospital Corporation of America, right across from the park, also ban smoking.

Now all the smokers migrate to the park.

Centennial Medical Center has appointed an employee task force to help solve the problem.

"Our goal with our tobacco-free policy was to completely remove tobacco products, especially lighted products, anywhere from the vicinity of our campus, recognizing that there is an unintended consequence," said Kimberly Tiscione of TriStar Centennial Medical Center.

Earlier this year, the hospital paid to have ashcans installed - not on hospital property, but across the street on park property.

"It's totally a mistake. This whole thing has been just really asinine. To put ashcans on the edge of municipal sidewalks so that there can be these private smoke decks in a public park - that's not what our parks are intended for," Thien said.

Metro Parks Director Tommy Lynch says in 2007 the department tried to ban smoking in parks but discovered it was against state law.

"The park board tried, has to be responsible in banning smoking, but felt like we couldn't," Lynch said.

You may, then, wonder why don't officers just start writing littering tickets. Wouldn't a fine stop a smoker mid-puff?

"They look to see if anybody is doing that, but they don't sit down there, watching for it, because they feel it would take them away from higher priority issues in the park," Lynch said.

Lynch suggests that if people really want to end smoking in the parks, someone needs to carry legislation. Until then, he believes park police needs to focus on more serious personal safety issues in the park.

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