Public records show TVA planned coal ash storage months before informing Memphians
Aerial of the TVA plant in Kingston Tennessee, on the Clinch River. An ash dam spill on December 22 2008 resulted in a major environmental issue for the area. (Photo: Karen Kasmauski for Getty Images)
In July 2021, the Tennessee Valley Authority shocked Memphis residents and officials after informing them that south Memphis would soon house potentially toxic coal ash from the now defunct Allen Fossil Plant.
TVA officials informed Memphians that the decision to use the South Shelby Landfill in south Memphis—a primarily Black and low-income community– “cannot be avoided,” but a public records request from environmental groups turned up news that TVA had made their decision in January, several months before informing the community.
“TVA’s choice to hide its coal ash disposal plan for nearly six months is just the latest example of the many ways the agency has worked to stifle public input. Throughout the decision-making process, TVA stripped local communities of the opportunity to receive important information about how this plan would impact them and their neighbors,” said Amanda Garcia, the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Tennessee Office Director.
In an email obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center, an unnamed employee at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation wrote that TVA initially planned to announce their decision on Jan. 27, 2021, but instead delayed their announcement for nearly six months, in a press release.
In the meantime, TVA obtained the necessary permits, including a permit from the TDEC, by the time they announced their decision to the Memphis City Council.
A previous iteration of the city council entered a memorandum of agreement with TVA after learning that toxins from the Allen Fossil Plant were leaking into a shallow clay layer directly above the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provided Shelby County with drinking water.
TVA’s choice to hide its coal ash disposal plan for nearly six months is just the latest example of the many ways the agency has worked to stifle public input. Throughout the decision-making process, TVA stripped local communities of the opportunity to receive important information about how this plan would impact them and their neighbors.
– Amanda Garcia, Southern Environmental Law Center
Council members ceded all authority on the matter to TVA, with the understanding that TVA would find a site to relocate approximately 2.7 million cubic yards or material away from the aquifer.
After TVA made its announcement, council members, residents and community leaders requested more information but were left with no clear answers as to why TVA chose the South Shelby Landfill and Republic Services for transporting the coal ash.
Councilmember Chase Carlisle would later call out TVA over their lack of transparency surrounding a bidding process made unavailable to the public.
In the six-month period between the initial decision and the announcement, TVA held public meetings to inform communities but were giving the impression that nothing was set in stone, according to Justin J. Pearson, a local community activist.
“By delaying the announcement, they prevented the community from having any say so in the ultimate decision making. Every meeting they had already decided for us what would happen to us,” he said.
And for the next decade, south Memphis residents will be living next to increased traffic from trucks carrying potentially toxic coal ash near their homes and businesses.
“This is environmentally unjust exploitation that continues to harm us and pollute our communities,” said Pearson.
In a statement, TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said TVA was coordinating with TDEC in January 2021 to ensure the agency had all of the appropriate permits and other matters to begin the project.
“We fulfilled all of our regulatory requirements regarding public announcements about the Allen Restoration Project because we executed a thorough public environmental review process over the last five years with more than 40 public meetings where we listened to the community we are privileged to serve. This includes following the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the remedial investigation regulatory process under TDEC.
This public review process identified the South Shelby Landfill for consideration of the safe, long-term storage of coal ash from the retired Allen Fossil Plant as early as 2019 because it met a rigorous set of criteria with oversight and approval by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC),” said Brooks.
The South Shelby Landfill was further discussed during a virtual public meeting on November 17, 2020 on TVA’s proposed plan for the removal and restoration process. TVA accepted comments on this plan to use the South Shelby Landfill for 30 days until December 17, 2020. We received comments from SELC (Amanda Garcia), Protect our Aquifer (Sarah Houston, and Justin Pearson (MCAP) on the proposed plan and they did not raise specific concerns related to using the South Shelby Landfill.
Memphis’s utility company, Memphis, Light, Gas and Water is currently deciding whether to leave TVA as its primary electricity provider.
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