Press Release | December 13, 2018

Memphis Groups Call For Shelby County Health Department To Revoke Five TVA Water Well Permits Under

New Permit Rules Restrict Wells Near Contaminated Groundwater

MEMPHIS, TN – The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of Protect Our Aquifer and the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, sent a letter yesterday calling for the Shelby County Health Department to revoke and not re-issue five water well permits for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Allen natural gas plant. TVA’s wells are located within a half-mile of an unlined, leaking coal ash pit where there are ongoing investigations into contaminated groundwater with arsenic levels 300 times the legal limit. Studies suggest that these wells could put the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the county’s primary drinking water source, at risk of contamination.

“It’s time for the county to step up and revoke these permits in favor of protecting the drinking water source for Memphis communities,” said SELC Attorney Anne Passino. “As long as TVA has those permits, they have the authority to operate wells that could be a hazard for the Memphis Sand Aquifer.”

Earlier this year, the University of Memphis and the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the coal ash-contaminated groundwater near the Allen power plant appears to be connected to the county’s drinking water source through a gap in the Memphis Sand Aquifer’s protective clay layer. The research also shows that because the two groundwater sources are connected, there is evidence of a downward pull on the contaminated groundwater toward the city’s drinking water source when TVA pumps water from the wells at its natural gas plant.

“With everything that we know about the threats to our local drinking water source, it’s hard to believe that TVA still holds permits issued by the County to operate water wells at Allen,” said Ward Archer, President of Protect Our Aquifer.

Shelby County updated codes for constructing and operating groundwater wells earlier this year (effective November 1, 2018). These rules were adopted by the Shelby County Groundwater Control Board, the entity that secures, protects, and preserves the quality and quantity of the groundwater within the boundaries of Shelby County. Under the new rules, wells are prohibited near sites where there are investigations into groundwater contamination, unless the wells will not enhance contamination.

The wells at TVA’s Allen natural gas plant are near a site that’s undergoing groundwater contamination investigations required under state and federal laws. 

“We hope the county agrees there is no need to operate wells that pull from our drinking water source while there are active groundwater investigations happening to understand the damage caused by coal ash pollution,” said Scott Banbury, Conservation Coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The Health Department should direct TVA to adhere to its new rules intended to better protect the Memphis Sand Aquifer.”

Over the past year, state and federal remedial investigations proceeded at TVA’s power plant facility where additional evidence of migrating contaminated groundwater emerged. TVA has begun buying water to cool the Allen natural gas plant from the city’s water utility, Memphis Light, Gas, & Water (MLGW) and constructed on-site storage tanks for back-up and peak-demand use. These investments demonstrate that an alternative source to the wells exists.

In the midst of reports suggesting that dangerous toxins like arsenic are leaking from TVA’s coal ash pit at Allen, contaminating groundwater that sits directly above the city’s drinking water source, TVA opted not to use the Allen natural gas plant cooling wells. However, TVA has not abandoned its permits. To date, the county has allowed the federal utility to keep its well permits.                                                                                                                                                                     


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.

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.

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

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