Memphis residents wage fight against TVA coal ash storage

By: - November 15, 2021 6:05 am
Coal ash slurry left behind in a containment pond near the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant Dec. 29, 2008 in Harriman, Tenn., after the dyke at left broke Dec. 22, 2008, unleashing a billion gallon flood of toxic sludge into the Emory River. (Photo: Greenpeace USA)

Coal ash slurry left behind in a containment pond near the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant Dec. 29, 2008 in Harriman, Tenn., after the dyke at left broke Dec. 22, 2008, unleashing a billion gallon flood of toxic sludge into the Emory River. (Photo: Greenpeace USA)

Activist Justin J. Pearson had barely finished one environmental fight before he realized he needed to get involved in another. 

Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Against the Pipeline, was a leader in a community pushback against the Byhalia Pipeline, a 49-mile oil conduit through historically Black Memphis neighborhoods. Activists said it was a prime example of environmental racism.

The pipeline spurred protests that eventually attracted national attention before Byhalia developers called a halt to the pipeline development in July, citing the pandemic as having significantly affected oil production.

Justin J. Pearson (Photo: submitted)
Justin J. Pearson (Photo: submitted)

City officials moved to create ordinances to protect residents and the aquifer from future risks of pollution, but before they could finalize the legislation, another environmental fight was simmering.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is preparing to store coal ash, a by-product of coal burning, in Southeast Memphis. And by the time TVA officials made the announcement,  Pearson and other Memphis residents learned there’s little they can do about keeping coal ash, which can be toxic, out of South Memphis.

The council had known of the pending environmental problem for several years.

In 2017, during routine groundwater monitoring, TVA officials found elevated levels of arsenic and found out  the cause was the nearby Allen Fossil Plant, a coal-burning facility. Beneath the area was the Memphis Sand Aquifer, from which drinking water is drawn for many of Shelby County’s residents. 

TVA officials had stored coal ash in the East Ash Impoundment that was now leaking and threatening to breach a shallow clay layer that provided minimal protections for the aquifer.

The Allen plant was closed in 2018 as TVA officials worked to find a site to relocate approximately 2.7 million cubic yards of material. The Memphis City Council, Shelby County, Memphis Light, Gas and Water and the Memphis & Shelby County Port Commission all entered a memorandum of agreement with TVA, ceding all authority to them on the matter. 

Several years later in summer 2021, TVA officials informed city council that they had made their final decision. 

The agency had executed a public environmental review process over the last few years that identified a South Memphis facility, the South Shelby Landfill, that met all the requirements for safe, long-term storage of coal ash needed for approval by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). Near the landfill is Whitehaven, a predominantly low-income Black neighborhood of about 72,000 residents. 

Memphis residents and city officials were shocked: They were informed of the final decision after TVA had already signed all the necessary paperwork.

“It was an anonymous decision that didn’t allow any public input,” said Councilmember Dr. Jeff Warren. 

TVA held public meetings to inform local communities in September, but not much information was shared about the dangers of coal ash. Notably, a massive coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn. in 2008, rendered nearby property uninhabitable. Many workers involved in the clean up process subsequently died of cancers attributed to the work with the coal ash.

The reality is that we've been shut out completely from (the permitting) process. It's been one of the most obvious examples of what I call exploitation before information in the way that (TVA) is operating.

– Justin Pearson, Memphis Against the Pipeline

Also not taken into consideration was the fact that the predominantly Black neighborhood was already dealing with air pollution from the nearby Memphis International Airport and a metal fabrication facility.

“It’s just awful that they would even try to do this, but this is how they operate,” said Pearl Walker, a White Haven resident and chair of the NAACP Environmental Justice Committee. 

“Give them an A-plus for consistency,” she said, voicing her suspicions that her neighborhood was chosen as the cheapest option.

And development could start soon, said TVA officials, since they have received almost all of the necessary permits. They need no further permission from city officials because of the MOA, and all that was left was completion of the Record of Decision by TDEC and approval of the Remedial Action Plan, which is being revised by TVA and will be issued to TDEC soon.

Although the city council members in 2016 could not have foreseen what would happen five years later, the TVA duped them,  said Walker. 

Frustrated, councilmembers and environmental activists asked for more information on why Memphis had been chosen and were given no additional information. Instead, they were told that using the Shelby Landfill “cannot be avoided.”

“The reality is that we’ve been shut out completely from that process. It’s been one of the most obvious examples of what I call exploitation before information in the way that they’re operating,” said Pearson.

The decision comes just as Pearson and other environmental justice groups, including, Protect Our Aquifer and the Southern Environmental Law Center  made attempts to get legislation passed to protect impoverished Black communities in Memphis against other industrial facilities.

“The Byhalia pipeline did not create environmental racism, it just revealed it,” said Pearson.

At the same time the groups were fighting the Byhalia Pipeline, TVA was under pressure to safely remove the coal ash before toxins leaked into the aquifer, leading to an environmental disaster that would affect thousands of people. 

TVA officials estimated that 240 truck trips a day carrying 120 truckloads of coal ash for the next eight years would be required just to reach the bottom layer of toxins leaking into the groundwater, according to TVA documents.  

Along the intended route are 72 businesses, 39 houses and one apartment complex, not including the other neighborhoods within a few miles from the landfill.

“Either way, whether they bring (coal ash) all the way through the streets or take the interstates, they have to travel through a residential community to get to the interstate and upon exiting the interstate,” said Walker. 

These communities were already burdened by pollution from nearby industrial pollution sources. A recent study by ProPublica identified the area as a toxic air pollution hot spot and estimated that cancer rates are one in 38,000 due to carcinogens coming from SFI Metal Fabrication Shop.

“The issue is that the coal ash is headed to our aquifer and we need to start as soon as possible. However, this decision didn’t take into consideration environmental racism,” said Warren.

“Get this stuff off the aquifer as soon as you can, but do not leave it there and make a plan “B” so that it’s no longer in a community of color,” he added.

On Wednesday, SELC lawyers sent a letter to TVA on Behalf of the Memphis Community Against Pollution, Protect our Aquifer and Tennessee Chapter Sierra Club, urging them to perform an environmental review of the impact that coal ash could have in the South Shelby Landfill.

“This decision will have long-lasting effects on neighborhoods in South Memphis and will impose nearly a decade of additional traffic, noise, air pollution, and public safety impacts on predominantly Black, low-wealth communities,” said Eric Hilt, spokesperson for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). 

The letter signed by numerous community leaders–including Pearson, Sarah Houston from Protect Our Aquifer and Scott Banbury from the Tennessee Chapter Sierra Club–cited a lack of transparency in TVA’s decision to choose South Memphis and asked for a response by Nov. 23.

The setting sun reflects from railroad tracks at a coal fired electricity power production facility in Tennessee. Atmospheric distortion caused by heat from the furnaces is visible near center left in the image. Photo was made in 1998. (Getty Images)
The setting sun reflects from railroad tracks at a coal fired electricity power production facility in Tennessee.Photo was made in 1998. (Getty Images)

“Removal of the coal ash is necessary to protect our clean drinking water from the toxic pollutants present at alarmingly high levels. However, we object to TVA’s effort to evade meaningful public engagement around its landfill selection process, and its decision to yet again impose pollution burdens on the South Memphis communities without considering alternatives.”

TVA officials are currently reviewing the letter but said there is no new information to influence their decision. 

“We share the same objectives as our neighbors and community leaders in contracting an experienced landfill operator that values the community, prioritizes safety and environmental stewardship, and is located in a primary industrial area,” said Scott Brooks, TVA public relations. 

“TVA has a shared responsibility with the City of Memphis, Shelby County, MLGW, and the Port Commission to safely remove the coal ash from the retired Allen Fossil Plant site and restore the site for the benefit of the community,” he added.

Although TVA could soon finalize their plans to relocate coal ash from the Allen plant to South Memphis, community leaders hope they can still influence their final decision.

If anything else, these situations show that when it comes to environmental disasters, communities of color are often left to foot the bill, and these scenarios are seen time and time again throughout the country, said Pearson.

“We have an obligation to do something to elevate this issue and to force people who are in positions of power to care for those who have been historically and systematically disempowered,” he said.


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.