Tennessee county board rebuffs proposal to put Superfund wastewater in drinking water source

Memphis, Tennessee sits along the Mississippi River but draws its drinking water from a vast underground reservoir of freshwater called the Memphis Sand aquifer, which is known for its purity. (© Nancy Pierce)

The Shelby County Groundwater Quality Control Board recently tabled a request by the Carrier Corporation to inject wastewater into the Memphis Sand aquifer at its Superfund site in Collierville, asking the company to come back in March with more information, including a closer examination of alternatives to putting the aquifer at risk.

While the delay is good news, the board could have simply denied the permit immediately based on the county code.

“The Shelby County Well Construction Code is clear,” said Amanda Garcia, managing attorney for SELC’s Tennessee office. “No injection wells are permitted in Memphis or Shelby County. And Carrier’s request is an excellent example of why this blanket prohibition is good policy.”

Decades ago, the heating and air conditioning manufacturer contaminated the aquifer with trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing chemical. The manufacturing facility that caused the contamination, located just east of Memphis, is now a Superfund site. As part of its mandated cleanup, Carrier has been pumping contaminated groundwater from under the facility, filtering out the TCE, then piping it to a sewage treatment plant.

That last step is expensive. Carrier proposed skipping it and simply injecting its wastewater back into the Memphis Sand aquifer — a huge reservoir of fresh, clean water that provides drinking water for Memphis.

The Shelby County Health Department denied Carrier’s original application for a permit. Carrier appealed to the Groundwater Quality Control Board.

On its face, injecting wastewater into the aquifer is a horrible idea, but it’s made even worse by the fact that Carrier has detected hexavalent chromium — another toxic carcinogen — in the well it wants to use for injection. The hexavalent chromium may have been siphoned from the adjacent Smalley Piper Superfund site as a result of Carrier’s cleanup efforts.

“They are trying to clean up one mess while creating another,” Garcia said.

The risks of contamination are too high to allow this cost-cutting measure to proceed, a fact recognized by the county code. SELC will be actively engaged as the Groundwater Quality Control Board considers whether to uphold the health department’s decision.


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