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Hundreds of feet below the city of Memphis, Tennessee, a massive collection of fresh water — known as the Memphis Sand Aquifer — provides drinking water to at least one million residents.
Memphis, the largest city in the United States to rely 100% on groundwater, is said to have the freshest water in the world.
In South Memphis, a cluster of low-income, mostly black neighborhoods, there are a staggering number of toxic waste sites: 33 in all. These sites present a double threat: they risk contaminating the aquifer, and on the surface, they endanger the lives of local residents through harmful emissions. Locals say enough is enough.
This isn’t the first time South Memphis residents have taken a stand against being treated like a dump. In 2020, the community successfully mobilized against the construction of the Byhalia crude oil pipeline, which would have exposed residents and aquifer at risk of hydrocarbon leaks or spills.
Now, Justin Pearson, president of Memphis Community Against Pollution, hopes to use that momentum to tackle a new threat: pollution. transportation and storage of an additional three million tons of toxic waste in their community.
Last July, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced plans to move 3.5 cubic meters of coal ash from its Allen plant to the South Shelby landfill near the Tennessee-Mississippi border.
Coal ash is the dust and sludge left over from burning coal for electricity that mixes heavy metals and radioactive materials at levels far above those found naturally in coal bedrock and in quantities. dangerous to human health.
It is often inexpensively stored in wet ponds near these facilities to prevent ultra-light dust from becoming airborne and flying away.
Tennessee knows the dangers of coal ash: In 2008, TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, 400 miles east of Memphis, spilled more than 6 billion gallons of coal ash in rural Tennessee.
In 2015, new federal guidelines required coal companies to test groundwater near their coal ash sites. That’s when TVA discovered high levels of contaminants in the shallow aquifer above the Memphis Sand Aquifer.
The arsenic had formed a plume – 300 times above safe levels – in the shallow aquifer above the fissures of the Memphis Sand Aquifer, endangering the drinking water supply of the entire region.
The state ordered TVA to remove the coal ash from the aquifer. So in November, TVA began trucking it through nearly 20 miles of neighborhoods and commercial areas. His final resting place: the South Shelby landfill, in South Memphis.
MCAP is concerned about the dangers of transporting coal ash across such a large part of the city and ending up in their neighborhood. And they say TVA’s decision-making process regarding the selection of the South Shelby landfill was not transparent.
In a statement, TVA said it plans to “safely remove the coal ash from the Allen site [and] store the coal ash for the long term in a highly engineered, lined landfill, and restore the site for the benefit of the community, while ensuring the continued protection of the Memphis aquifer.”
The truck route that could haul toxic waste for the next decade
In February, Sarah Houston, director of Protect Our Aquifer, a Memphis-based nonprofit, navigated from the passenger seat as we retraced the route of the coal ash truck.
We left the industrial corridor, hopped on I-55 and arrived in Whitehaven, where dollar stores, fast food joints and half a dozen churches line the residential road.
TVA reported that the coal ash truck route only passes 39 homes (plus 72 businesses and a 36-unit apartment complex), but the Houston nonprofit found 1,500 residences within a quarter mile from the road.
And most people in that community probably don’t know they will be affected. Houston says TVA failed to help the community understand the Coal Ash Road and why they were hauling toxic waste through their neighborhoods.
In response, TVA shared that Angela Austin, the project’s construction manager, often travels along the haul route. “I have no choice but to succeed because this is my neighborhood,” Austin said.
Pearl Walker, coordinator of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, lives six blocks from the Truck Road.
The trucks ran for four months before Walker discovered them.
By early March, TVA had moved about 55,000 cubic meters of coal ash from the Allen plant to the South Shelby landfill, enough to fill more than 16 Olympic swimming pools.
With giant 10-wheel trucks making 120 trips a day, TVA estimates it will take 10 years to remove the coal ash. Trucks will also have to drive through South Memphis and back along a separate route to cover the ash and hold it in place.
Eventually we take the narrow two-lane road before reaching Republic Services, where a newly constructed landfill, designed with clay and a poly liner, is safer than the unlined pits where the ashes of coal are usually stored.
This is where the coal ashes will remain for the foreseeable future.
But notably, the landfill is always above the aquifer.
“Another example of institutionalized racism”
TVA says it has held 40 public events over the past five years, including meetings with Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club. But community leaders say if they heard of those meetings, they amounted to little more than Zoom presentations.
City Council members like Jeff Warren – are pushing TVA to release documents that show how they chose the South Shelby landfill and provide additional options for where to move the remaining coal ash at Allen.
Warren and other council members are in a unique position of power. While only Congress controls TVA, the City Council controls the budget of Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW), West Tennessee’s local power company and TVA’s largest customer.
MLGW has threatened to leave the VAT system for cheaper and more renewable energy options. Since TVA wants to keep MLGW, residents could have historical influence over TVA’s decisions about coal ashes.
“How TVA handles this coal ash situation will directly affect where the board approves MLGW to go in the future,” Warren said. “There is no doubt in my mind that these two things will be linked.”
“The same fights that our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents fought”
In February, we caught up with Pearson, president of MCAP, at a small rally in downtown Memphis commemorating the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike.
Fifty-four years ago, 1,300 black sanitation workers began a march against the low wages and unsafe working conditions that had led to the deaths of two garbage collectors – Echol Cole and Robert Walker – who were sheltering from the cold rain in the back of their truck when the vehicle malfunctioned and crushed them to death.
The two-month strike that followed launched the national movement for environmental justice.
We caught up with South Memphis resident Frank Johnson, who was carrying a 54-year-old “I’m a man” sign, now riddled with brown age spots around the softened edges, which he found in the back of his closet. dad.
Pearson said the problem is bigger than South Memphis.
“The truth is that TVA thinks black people are going to have to endure whatever decision they make,” he said. “That the people who live here are going to have to take it. They are wrong.”
Pearson worries that residents will be demoralized when they hear of yet another injustice in their backyard. But he and Houston still plan to survey the neighborhood this spring, share truck route information, educate the public about coal ash and provide ways to report issues like airborne dust in air or dirt escaping from truck beds.
He wants TVA to be transparent and open to community feedback on its coal ash decisions to set a precedent for how TVA will clean up at least 17 more coal ash impoundments across the state.