Press Release | February 21, 2018

Memphis Groups Demand TVA Rethink Plan to Use City’s Source of Drinking Water at New Gas Plant

Groundwater Contamination at Nearby Coal Plant Threatens to Infiltrate Clean Water Supply and Violates Laws

Memphis, TN – The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club, sent a letter today demanding that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) use a more reasonable and responsible alternative source of cooling water for its Allen natural gas plant instead of private wells drilled into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the city’s source of drinking water. Based on significant new information about the risk of arsenic contamination to Memphis’ clean water supply, SELC is insisting TVA must reconsider its plans and allow the public to weigh in on other options.


At its Allen facility outside of Memphis, TVA recently built a gas plant less than half a mile from a coal plant slated for retirement in 2018 that uses an unlined, leaking coal ash pit. Originally planning to utilize recycled gray water from a nearby wastewater treatment plant to cool the new gas plant, TVA later changed course and decided to withdraw water on-site directly from the Memphis Sand Aquifer.


Dangerous toxins leaking from the Allen coal ash pit have contaminated groundwater that sits directly above the city’s drinking water aquifer with high levels of arsenic and other toxins. In one area, arsenic levels register more than 300 times the legal limit. TVA’s contamination violates federal and state laws that protect clean water and prohibit open dumping of coal ash. Citizens, community leaders and scientific experts are concerned that when TVA turns on its cooling wells at the gas plant, this arsenic-contaminated groundwater under the nearby coal ash pit will be pulled directly into the city’s source of drinking water, exacerbating the illegal contamination.


“TVA pursued a reckless course while turning a blind eye to the risk of polluting Memphis’ primary source of drinking water,” said Amanda Garcia, staff attorney with SELC. “From the outset, TVA should have considered the local communities who depend on the Memphis Sand Aquifer as a source for safe, reliable drinking water. All we’re asking is that TVA stop ignoring the risk to the city’s clean water and reconsider its choices.”


In November 2016, TVA began detecting arsenic levels more than 300 times the legal limit at the Allen coal plant, but waited six months, until May 2017, to report the results to the state. Meanwhile, TVA defended permits it had obtained from Shelby County to drill cooling wells for the Allen gas plant without disclosing or analyzing the extent of the arsenic contamination.


“TVA has known about elevated levels of arsenic contamination of groundwater near its Allen coal plant and the high risk of leaking into the Memphis Sand since the 1980s,” said Anne Passino, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Some more recent monitoring reports have shown arsenic at even higher levels. Given what we know now, it’s truly remarkable that TVA would apply for and defend permits to drill into the Memphis Sand Aquifer without analyzing this risk. Contamination issues that fly under the radar don’t cease to exist.”


After reporting the arsenic issues at the Allen site to the state’s environmental agency, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), TVA was required to study the potential impact of the cooling wells on the Memphis Sand Aquifer and the risk of contaminated groundwater infiltrating the aquifer. In October 2017, TVA performed a short pump test, limited to 24-hours, to check if the wells would pull polluted groundwater into the city’s primary source of drinking water. These test results were supposed to be submitted to TDEC at the end of October 2017. However, TVA has delayed reporting the pump test results to the state and public for over five months and now plans to submit them by March 6, 2018.


“We have the right to know about any decisions that could possibly put our drinking water at risk, and cutting corners behind closed doors to the detriment of the Memphis Sand Aquifer is simply unacceptable,” said Ward Archer, President of Protect Our Aquifer. “As a federal agency, TVA should be acting in the best interests of the public, not delaying or hiding test results from us. It’s time for TVA to be honest and transparent with the citizens of Memphis about what’s happening at Allen and the risk imposed on our water source.”


“TVA needs to stop being irresponsible and reevaluate the risk of contaminating our city’s drinking water source with dangerous toxins,” said Scott Banbury, Conservation Coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “You can keep your coal ash out of our water. We don’t want it.”



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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 70 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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