The TVA is dumping a mountain of coal ash in Black south Memphis


HR King
May 29, 2001
It’s rare for a Black community to notch a win against a large industrial polluter, but that’s what happened on this city’s south side.
Residents stood up to a proposal by two oil and gas industry giants to build a pipeline under their properties and forced them to back down. When the news broke last year in July, the rejoicing began.
But it didn’t last long.
Just two weeks after Valero Energy Corp. and Plains All-American abandoned their pipeline bid, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced its plan to truck millions of tons of contaminated coal ash through south Memphis for nearly 10 years and dump it in a landfill there. And there was nothing residents could do to stop it.
What happened in south Memphis is another example of how industries constantly work to fight their way into communities of color already teeming with pollution — and get their way more often than not.
By spring this year, earthmovers were crawling on a mountain of the toxic pollutant and dumping it into trucks with sealed cabins to protect the drivers against breathing it. Every weekday, the convoy rolls toward Interstate 55, starting a 19-mile procession to dump waste laced with mercury, arsenic and other contaminants at a landfill in south Memphis and cover it with dirt.
Diesel trucks operated by a contractor, Republic Services, will make 240 trips per day to remove 3.2 million cubic yards of coal ash — about 4 million tons — through an environmental justice community that already faces heavy industrial pollution from nearby oil and gas refineries, pipelines, freeways, rail yards and trash dumps.
Residents, conservationists and local politicians who oppose the plan say that the TVA — the nation’s largest public utility — failed to consult them adequately or seriously consider less harmful alternatives.

In south Memphis, the coal ash convoy joins at least 22 other serious polluting industries, according to a University of Memphis study, creating a layering effect that has already led to much worse air quality and health outcomes than in most of the country.
A natural gas plant has also recently joined the neighborhood, and there is a push to make the community’s victory over the pipeline short-lived.
Excessive industrial pollution in Black, Indigenous and Latino communities across the country is pervasive. And recent studies show that negative health outcomes in these areas are directly linked to the ways that local governments and financial institutions adopted policies — known as redlining — that kept people of color confined to certain areas in cities, while supporting Whites who relocated to suburbs.
South Memphis — broken up into historic and iconic communities such as Boxtown, Whitehaven and Westwood — already has some of the dirtiest air in Tennessee. Measurements of ozone and particulate matter, particularly from diesel trucks, are well above levels considered to be safe, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Deadly air pollutant ‘systematically and disproportionately’ harms Americans of color, study finds
The lifetime cancer risk is abnormally high, and the life expectancy rate, 67 years, is low compared with the state average, 75 years. The average in Shelby County, where Memphis sits, surrounded by wealthier White suburbs, is 79 years.

“Even when the windows are closed, I can still smell exhaust in my den,” said Kimberley Davis, a 46-year-old Internal Revenue Service employee who lives in the community of Whitehaven near I-55.
The diesel-spewing trucks will add to the more than 2,400 vehicles that stream by her south Memphis neighborhood on the freeway every day. Thousands more stream across Interstate 240, which is also nearby.
Down the road from her house, FedEx jets take off and land around-the-clock at the world’s busiest cargo airport. Truck depots, commercial rail yards and underground industrial storage facilities all are nearby.
“I was having issues with sinuses and with breathing, and I didn’t really understand why,” said Davis, who runs a pair of air purifiers every time she cracks open a window. “I just really believe that it has a lot to do with the heavy pollution in the area.”

‘More trouble on top of trouble’​

Everyone agrees that the mountain of coal ash is a nightmare waiting to happen.
It piled up over five decades as workers burned 7,200 tons of coal per day to generate electricity that powered a region. The coal ash was stashed in giant pits that are now leaking and threatening to contaminate one of the most precious natural resources in the Deep South: the 55 trillion gallon Memphis Sand Aquifer, the underground source of the city’s drinking water.
Memphis is the only major city in the United States that draws all of its drinking water from the ground. A water quality test in 2017 confirmed the fears of environmentalists. It detected levels of arsenic 300 times higher than the legal limit in a shallow body of groundwater that sits above the deep main aquifer.
Although studies showed that the water is safe to drink, the TVA agreed to haul away and bury the coal ash at a cost of $300 million. The utility closed the Allen Fossil Plant and worked on alternative plans to get rid of the coal ash.
The agency held public meetings about the proposals it was considering and initiated an environmental analysis required under federal law. The most controversial option was trucking coal ash through a part of the city that was more than 80 percent Black.
As the TVA’s plan slowly unfolded, residents were involved in another fight against pollution. In 2019, two oil and gas companies — Valero Energy Corp. and Plains All-American Pipeline — announced plans to run a crude oil pipeline through the neighborhood.
The project would have gone through some people’s backyards, some said. But the pipeline company objected to that, saying 93 percent of properties the project would have crossed were vacant land and every resident with homes in the area had entered financial agreements to allow it.
Local activists who mobilized against it felt they were fighting a losing cause after a representative for the oil companies made a remark that angered all of south Memphis.
At a community meeting in early 2020, a land agent contracted by the companies explained why they selected their neighborhood: “We took, basically, a point of least resistance.” His remarks were recorded and published on a podcast, “Broken Ground.”
As residents reportedly stared at each other in disbelief, the land agent added: “We encountered [other] communities that were newly being built, and we rerouted around them.”
Valero Energy declined requests for comments and Plains All-American issued a brief statement. At the time, the companies claimed that the land agent had misspoken, saying that choosing “a point of least resistance” was never their intention.

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HR Legend
Mar 29, 2002
They should move to the suburbs, but not near us - or we'll call the cops.