A 2019 Memphis City Council meeting. (Photo: City of Memphis)
The Memphis Sand Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for Shelby County residents, is the subject of a growing number of disputes.
Memphis City Councilmembers on Tuesday clashed with Tennessee Valley Authority representatives over plans to relocate coal ash to a local landfill over fears it could contaminate the aquifer.
The Southern Environmental Law Center late last week filed suit against Memphis Light, Gas and Water, alleging the utility has failed to turn over documentation on developments that could impact the aquifer.
And throughout 2020, environmentalists and civil-rights groups protested against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a joint-venture between the Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation. The crude oil pipeline’s intended path was over the Davis Wellfield, an area where the city draws its water from the aquifer. The companies ultimately withdrew from the venture, but fears over future threats to the aquifer remain.
During a contentious Memphis City Council Parks and Environment Committee on Tuesday, councilmembers pressed TVA officials about plans to relocate coal ash from the now-closed Allen Fossil Plant to a landfill near the Memphis International Airport.
The coal ash, Councilmember Dr. Jeff Warren fears, poses a risk of contamination to the Memphis Sand Aquifer. Warren is among the council members who have pressed TVA to consider alternative locations for the ash, the waste byproduct of burning coal.
Officials with TVA, however, told the committee on Tuesday that they plan to move forward with plans to bury the coal ash at the South Shelby County landfill.
That prompted frustrated reactions from councilmembers.
“I’m not sure that we are getting good faith, best efforts from you guys to look at the process of what an alternative means of remediation would look like,” said Councilmember Chase Carlisle.
For nearly a year, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), along with others, have urged the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council to pass legislation protecting the aquifer. In response, the Shelby County Commission passed an ordinance to bar pipeline developments from being within 1,500 feet of most residential areas.
Then last Thursday, lawyers with the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) after they said the utility company failed to provide them with documentation about developments that could impact the aquifer.
MLGW owns 13-miles of the Collierville Pipeline, which is being leased to an affiliate of Valero Energy Corp to transport crude oil. Like the Byhalia pipeline, the Collierville Pipeline sits directly above the Memphis aquifer.
Last January, the law center sent a public records request to MLGW for documents related to the Collierville Pipeline and the Diamond pipeline, a pipeline carrying oil from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Later that month, lawyers sent another records request for the company’s wellhead protection plan and updated their request to include documents related to the Davis Wellfield leading to the aquifer, according to the lawsuit.
“Memphians deserve to know why a drinking water utility owns a crude oil pipeline and what threat it poses to the aquifer,” said Eric Hilt, SELC’s communications manager.
The documents requested included contracts, leases and other agreements between MLGW and Valero Energy Corp, specifically in regards to the Collierville Pipeline.
In April, environmental lawyers served a subpoena to MLGW requesting documents related to the Collierville Pipeline and the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, according to the lawsuit. They never received a response on documents for the Collierville Pipeline.
Angelika Woods, a spokeswoman for Memphis Light, Gas and Water, declined comment to the Lookout about the records requests, citing pending litigation.
The recent controversies come after nearly a year of tensions in the community and during commission and council meetings over plans to build the Byhalia Pipeline through parts of Memphis to transport crude oil. Byhalia representatives sought to use eminent domain to acquire private property to finish building the pipeline.
In July, company officials announced they would no longer pursue the Byhalia pipeline due to the pandemic. As county and city officials continued to debate over future protections against pipeline developments, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter to MLGW requesting immediate action on their records request and agreed to ask only for information on the Collierville Pipeline.
MLGW apologized for the delay and promised to “be forwarding a response as soon as the information is available,” but attorneys for SELC said no response was ever received.
On Sept. 30, environmental lawyers filed a lawsuit against MLGW after more than seven months since the initial request,
“MLGW has not provided any legally justifiable reason for denying the records requested, or for delaying its response to the records request,” said George Nolan, SELC attorney.
Although the Byhalia pipeline is no longer in development, the Collierville pipeline now poses a threat to the aquifer, said Nolan.
There is no reason to believe that the Collierville pipeline will replace the Byhalia pipeline, but there needs to be a clearer understanding about MLGW’s plans for the pipeline, said Nolan.
However, “the community should be watchful, and the Public Records Act, as well as basic concepts of good government, requires MLGW to be open and forthright with facts surrounding the Collierville Pipeline. The community has a right to know how and why its local water utility became the owner of a crude oil pipeline and what is being done to make sure that the pipeline never harms the aquifer,” he added.
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