SELC op-ed: Memphis aquifer belongs to the public, not TVA

Tennessee Valley Authority's Allen plant, outside of Memphis. (© Commercial Appeal)

Amanda Garcia, attorney in SELC’s Nashville office, recently highlighted the issues with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s pursuit of procedure changes to reduce public input on the utility’s projects. This request comes even though state regulators are investigating whether arsenic contamination in groundwater at TVA’s Allen coal plant could contaminate Memphis’s drinking water after TVA claimed no risk to water quality and drilled wells to help run its new gas plant—without public input. A recent letter Garcia wrote with Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, outlines the many times the utility said “Trust us,” only to be found to have downplayed the risk.

Below is an excerpt of the full letter outlining TVA’s past poor performance in Memphis and the utility’s recent requests not to be held to a higher standard.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is considering a proposal that would allow it to install groundwater withdrawal wells without getting public input or conducting public environmental reviews.

The federal utility claims that as long as it verifies a low potential for (among other things) contamination of freshwater aquifers, no threats to clean water will ever result from TVA’s wells.

TVA says the public should give it unlimited discretion to decide when "extraordinary circumstances" affecting our communities, or "substantial doubt" about the agency’s scientific conclusions, might warrant further analysis and public scrutiny.

In fact, even when TVA decides to look at a problem more thoroughly, it says it should have discretion to shut out public comment if it believes the public has already had enough opportunity to weigh in elsewhere.

TVA’s rationale for this proposal? Trust us, we’re the government.

Memphians know better. In April 2016, TVA unilaterally proposed and decided to run and cool its new Allen natural gas plant by drilling into the Memphis Sand Aquifer – the city's primary drinking water source.

TVA made this decision without seeking public comment through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the bedrock law that requires federal agencies like TVA to involve the public in evaluating harms to our shared resources before taking action.

Despite questions raised by local groups like the Sierra Club and Protect Our Aquifer, TVA claimed there was no risk of contamination to public drinking water supplies.

A year later, extremely high levels of toxic pollutants, including arsenic, have been discovered in groundwater located under a coal ash pond at TVA’s Allen Fossil Plant.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has ordered an investigation.

If TDEC hadn’t discovered the arsenic contamination and intervened, TVA would have charged ahead without regard for impacts on our drinking water.

State and local regulators are doing what they think they can, belatedly. But if the public had been given a timely opportunity to review TVA’s original decision to install wells, we likely wouldn’t be in this mess.

Making informed decisions based on public input is the fundamental purpose of NEPA – to allow communities to voice their concerns about decisions that may affect their lives and livelihoods, not to allow federal agencies like TVA to make these decisions behind closed doors.

TVA’s proposal amounts to an attempt to rewrite its way out of complying with NEPA. To make matters worse, the exclusion for groundwater wells is just one of 50 exclusions TVA proposes.

Trust us, we’re the government? Congress never intended NEPA to work that way. The investigation of groundwater contamination at Allen is evidence enough that Congress was right and TVA’s proposal is wrong.

TVA’s decisions need more day-lighting, not less. Don’t block our sunshine or poison our wells, TVA.

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