Solutions start in Tennessee

SELC is one of the most effective environmental organizations in the South. For 37 years, our place-based approach has made us the fiercest watchdog for our region’s natural treasures and rich biodiversity. Because of this impressive track record, SELC can steer national policy on clean energy, clean water, public lands, and more. Today, we are accepting the mantle of transforming our region’s impact on climate change and addressing a history of environmental injustice. Largely thanks to SELC and our partners, we are holding the Tennessee Valley Authority accountable, protecting our rivers and waterways, and helping ensure a healthy environment for all, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Byhalia pipeline canceled

On July 2, a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline company buckled under waves of coordinated pressure from SELC and our local allies and canceled plans to route a crude oil pipeline through historic Black neighborhoods in southwest Memphis. Working at the federal, state, and local levels, SELC came alongside our partners Memphis Community Against Pollution and Protect Our Aquifer to provide the legal muscle necessary to help residents of Boxtown, Westwood, and White Chapel protect their communities. This outcome represents a significant step forward in SELC’s long-term efforts to protect Memphis’ vulnerable drinking water supply and a major victory for environmental justice that is resonating across the nation.

An aerial view shows a river in the foreground and a large power plant with smokestacks on its shores.
TVA’s Kingston plant sits along at the neck of a penninsula between the Emory and Clinch Rivers .

Shutting down TVA’s fossil fuel power

SELC is pushing hard on TVA to jump start the clean energy revolution in Tennessee. As the country’s largest public utility, TVA’s energy decisions for the state also carry an outsized influence on the nation as a whole. The utility wants to replace Cumberland and Kingston, two of the country’s largest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants, with new natural gas plants, which utilities often place in communities of color that are already unfairly burdened by pollution. SELC is pressing TVA to adopt a clean energy mix—with efficiency, solar, and storage—instead of this proposal, which could single-handedly derail President Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035.

Breaking up TVA’s forever contracts

When TVA’s largest customer announced they were considering leaving the utility for cheaper and cleaner options, TVA rolled out new contracts with power distributors across Tennessee that effectively lock localities into buying electricity from the federal behemoth forever. These contracts sharply limit local decision-making and grant TVA a captive customer base to fund new fossil fuel investments and continue to slow walk its transition to renewable energy. SELC is in federal court challenging these contracts, and we recently defeated TVA’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. We will now be able to reveal the utility’s illegal shortcuts and fight to give local power companies the right to renegotiate with TVA.

Water rushes down a mountain stream lined with moss and fallen leaves

Protecting waterways in the face of rampant growth

Led by Nashville, Middle Tennessee is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, and climate migrants relocating from California and the East Coast are placing additional development pressure on our communities and the natural resources they depend on. One of the most serious consequences of development is pollution and loss of vegetative buffers to protect our waterways. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather events, Tennessee communities are facing a newly elevated risk from extreme inland flooding events, like the disaster in Humphreys County that took 21 lives. SELC is drawing on our unmatched expertise in clean water protection to prioritize the safeguarding of Tennessee’s streams and rivers.

Late summer sun illuminates a bank along Tennessee's Duck river.
Morning on the Duck River (© ByronJorjorian)

Preserving the Duck River

Tennessee’s Duck River is a remarkable natural treasure and the most biodiverse river in North America. Today, rampant urban expansion and industrial development are threatening the Duck. For months, a sand and gravel mine has been willfully violating federal regulations by operating without a permit on the banks of the river. The reckless project sits fully within the waterway’s 100-year floodplain (which has flooded 27 times since 2017) and could have devastating impacts on the river and its ecosystem. Despite lacking a required permit, the company is illegally continuing construction. SELC is pressing TVA and state officials to take action and shut down this illegal and dangerous operation. Also, as local utilities seek approval to withdraw millions of additional gallons of water per day from the Duck to support new developments, we are engaged in an administrative proceeding to defend common sense flow restrictions during periods of drought.

Fighting a legacy of injustice

The cancellation of the Byhalia Pipeline opened a broader conversation about the unfair impacts of pollution in Tennessee and across the nation, and SELC is seizing this opportunity. As part of our opposition to the project, SELC’s Environmental Justice Initiative coordinated the filing of a federal Title VI complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency under the Civil Rights Act, alleging the state environmental agency has failed to consider disparate impacts on Black communities in the full range of its permitting activities. Through this ongoing complaint, SELC continues to seek far-reaching policy changes that will require the state to fulfill its environmental justice obligations under federal law.

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