Shelby County Health Department Puts Strict Limits on TVA Water Wells at Allen Power Plant

MEMPHIS, TN — This week, the Shelby County Health Department placed strict limits on the use of five water wells at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Allen natural gas plant. The modified permits prohibit TVA from using the wells except in three limited circumstances: (1) to sample for contaminants or further study the connection of the coal ash-contaminated shallow aquifer to the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the county’s drinking water source; (2) to operate the gas plant when water from Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW)  is not available and there is a risk of catastrophic failure of the gas plant or serious damage or disruption to the regional power grid; and (3) for very limited, periodic maintenance.   

TVA had previously indicated that it would not use the wells until a state investigation into groundwater contamination is complete. At the same time, however, the federal utility sought continued permission from the County to operate the wells without restrictions. The County ultimately imposed the strict limits in response to a request to revoke or limit TVA’s right to use the wells made by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club.

“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.”

TVA’s wells at the Allen gas plant are located within a half-mile of an unlined, leaking coal ash pit operated by TVA where there are ongoing investigations into groundwater contaminated with extremely high levels of arsenic, lead and other coal ash pollutants. Studies suggest that, if these wells are in operation, the Memphis Sand Aquifer could be at a greater risk of coal ash pollution entering the county’s drinking water source more quickly.

Last year, the University of Memphis and the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the coal ash-contaminated groundwater near the Allen power plant is connected to the county’s drinking water source through gaps in the Memphis Sand Aquifer’s protective clay layer. The research also shows that because the two groundwater sources are connected, the contaminated groundwater is pulled more strongly downward toward the county’s drinking water source when TVA pumps water from the wells at its gas plant.

“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.”

Currently, TVA is considering how to close and remediate unlined, leaking coal ash pits at its retired Allen coal plant. The TVA site is undergoing both state and federal remedial investigations into groundwater contamination that is less than a half-mile away from the wells at TVA’s Allen natural gas plant.

 “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.”

TVA is currently buying water to cool the Allen natural gas plant from the city’s water utility, MLGW, and constructed on-site storage tanks for back-up and peak-demand use. TVA originally proposed using recycled water from the T.E. Maxson Wastewater Treatment Plant for its industrial water needs, a proposal supported by the community.

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Southern Environmental Law Center

For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. SouthernEnvironment.org

Protect Our Aquifer

Protect Our Aquifer is a non-profit citizen group formed to support the conservation and protection of the Memphis Sand Aquifer for the benefit of present and future generations. ProtectOurAquifer.org

Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in Tennessee, with more than 105,000 members and supporters across the state. The Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org/tennessee

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