Shelby County puts strict limits on TVA’s wells

Operation of TVA wells at its power plant outside of Memphis could pull coal ash-polluted water into the region's drinking water source.  (© Ami Somers/SELC)

This week, the Shelby County Health Department imposed strict limits on the use of wells drilled at Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Allen natural gas plant that tap into the prized Memphis Sand Aquifer, the primary drinking source for the Memphis region. The county ultimately imposed the new restrictions in response to a request made by SELC on behalf of Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club to revoke or limit TVA’s right to use the wells.

For decades, TVA operated and knew that several unlined, leaking coal ash pits had contaminated nearby groundwater with arsenic other toxins at its Allen coal plant. One of these coal ash dumps, known as the East Pond, sits less than a half-mile from the new Allen gas plant. A recent state-required investigation about contamination issues revealed through a study by the University of Memphis Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering and U.S. Geological Survey that running the water wells at the gas plant caused water to be pulled from the nearby coal ash polluted groundwater, putting the county’s drinking water source at risk of contamination.

“TVA should never have asked for those well permits, and we’re pleased that the county acknowledged, in a letter, that TVA would be denied permits to drill the wells if they had applied today,” said Amanda Garcia, senior attorney in SELC’s Nashville office. “The strict limits the county placed on the wells show how serious the pollution risk is to the county’s drinking water source.”

The restrictions only allow TVA to draw water from the wells under three very limited circumstances:

  1. to sample for contaminants or further study the link between the aquifers;
  2. limited, periodic maintenance; or
  3. if water from the municipal water supply isn’t available and there is a risk of catastrophic failure of the gas plant or a serious disruption to the regional power grid.

“The recent action by the county to restrict TVA’s use of these wells is the right decision,” said Ward Archer, President of Protect Our Aquifer. “Last year, the Shelby County Groundwater Control Board made the first step to better protect the Memphis Sand Aquifer by adopting stronger rules for obtaining permits and operating wells that pull from the Memphis Sand. However, we still need better local groundwater protections across the area and we hope Shelby County continues to work to conserve our most precious natural resource.”

The unlined coal ash pits at TVA’s retired Allen coal plant are under state and federal investigations to determine the extent of groundwater contamination from toxic coal ash and how to best fix the pollution issues. TVA had previously indicated that it would not use the wells until the state investigation into groundwater contamination at its East Ash Pond is complete. At the same time, however, the federal utility sought continued permission from the county to operate the wells without restrictions.

“Shelby County has taken an important first step to protect our clean water from the coal ash pollution at Allen,” said Scott Banbury, Conservation Coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Now TVA needs to do the right thing and remove all of the ash that is threating our county’s drinking water source.”

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