News | March 1, 2021

On the Ground in Tennessee

The right organization, in the right place, at the right time.

For 35 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used a place-based approach to protect the basic right to clean air and clean water, to preserve our region’s natural treasures, and to help provide a healthy environment for all. Our multifaceted strategy uses every tool in the toolbox to produce historic outcomes in our six states—like the coal ash cleanup at Gallatin Fossil Plant and the cancelation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline—while raising the bar for protection and enforcement across our region and the whole country. Over the past four years and in the midst of a global pandemic, SELC fought for the rule of law and slowed or stopped the most calamitous unraveling of environmental safeguards in modern history.

With our dedicated partners, we managed to preserve a solid foundation so that now we can all move ahead on pressing challenges like climate change and environmental injustices. SELC lawyers are highlighting the most urgent priorities for the new administration, offering solutions based in science and the law, ensuring that good changes stick, and setting strong precedents in court when necessary. Thanks to our generous, faithful supporters, SELC is ready for what lies ahead and confident we can continue securing results that matter for this country, the South, and our beautiful Volunteer State—from the Great Smokey Mountains to the Mississippi River.

©Kyle Sullivan


SELC and our local partners are taking a stand against a proposed oil pipeline that would cut through several Black neighborhoods in southwest Memphis, including the Boxtown community, which got its name after formerly enslaved people used scrap material and wood from train boxcars to build homes there in the late 19th century.

Boxtown is already unjustly burdened by pollution form dozens of industrial facilities—including an oil refinery, an active gas plant, and a recently retired coal plant with extensive coal ash contamination. A land agent for Plains All American, one of the companies proposing the Byhalia Pipeline, stated that the company chose to build along “a point of least resistance,” signaling a blatant disregard for the health of this resilient community.

The pipeline route would also cut through a wellfield that draws from the Memphis Sand Aquifer and supplies drinking water to the surrounding communities. An oil leak or spill in this area could have devastating effects on the drinking water source for southwest Memphis. SELC is working with our partners at Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Protect Our Aquifer, and the Sierra Club to urge local governments to act after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the company a fast track permit that ignored impacts on the communities’ drinking water wellfield. The pipeline company is also improperly attempting to take from local landowners’ property, some of which has been in their families for generations.

SELC has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in the state court proceedings to protect the community’s land and drinking water.


Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 30 percent of toxic water pollution from across all industries, and the percentage is likely even higher in the Southeast. The past four years have seen the rollback of a broad range of protections that ramp up the pressure on poor-performing power plants to retire. This effort weakens standards for power plant discharges, including dangerous pollutants like mercury, arsenic, selenium, and bromides, risking harm to people living nearby and the clean water they depend on. If successful, these rollbacks would exempt many plants from protective regulations, including TVA’s Cumberland coal plant, which is the largest discharger of toxic wastewater from air filter technology in the country. This change would allow continued pollution of the Cumberland River, which provides drinking water and recreation for Tennesseans downstream. Representing Sierra Club jointly with Earthjustice, SELC is challenging these rollbacks in court.


As we push to retire inefficient, polluting power facilities, we are making room for clean energy in Tennessee, where TVA has less solar power on its grid than other major power companies in our region. The utility recently moved to restrict customers’ access to clean energy from other sources, like independent solar providers. While promising it would allow a modest amount of power from outside solar companies, the utility’s plans are unlikely to move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, TVA’s plan would squash competition in the area, allowing the utility to continue to slow-walk its transition to renewable energy. We are now in court supporting the people of the Tennessee Valley, who deserve the same access to solar as our neighbors.

Mill Creek Watershed.


After four years of unrelenting assaults, our country’s clean water protections are at their weakest in over 50 years. SELC is leading the national fight to protect the rivers, streams, and wetlands in the South and across the country now vulnerable to pollution. We are in federal court on behalf of regional and national partners to limit the damage. And as the Biden team confronts this dire situation, SELC is highlighting the importance of rebuilding the nation’s clean water protections.



The federal government has also proposed the removal of endangered species protections across the Southeast, including those for the Nashville Crayfish, a unique crustacean that survives in waterways in the heart of the city. The crayfish has been the lifeline for the Mill Creek watershed, the crayfish’s habitat and an important source of clean water for nearby communities. SELC is voicing our concern that the crayfish and its habitat are still vulnerable and pushing back against attempts to remove these crucial protections.

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