The Southern Environmental Law Center’s approach is rooted in local presence, place-based action, and a network of partners throughout our six Southern states along with coordinated legal, strategy, and communications expertise. By successfully tackling complex environmental issues and powerful opponents in our particular region over 35 years, SELC has consistently delivered nationally significant results and earned a reputation as one of the most effective nonprofits in the US. Our Tennessee team is dedicated to state-based work and championing communities and natural resources from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Cumberland Plateau to our glorious river system—while simultaneously seeking to use our local results to raise the bar for environmental standards and enforcement for the entire nation, with particular urgency on limiting climate change and addressing environmental injustice.
Preserving the Duck River
Tennessee’s Duck River is a remarkable natural treasure and the most biodiverse river in North America. Today, plans to withdraw more water from the river to keep up with fast-paced development is threatening the Duck. When combined with periods of drought and severe weather, these excessive withdrawals—which could be up to 33 percent more gallons per day—would alter the flow of the river. Representing our partners, SELC is engaged in an administrative proceeding to defend common sense flow restrictions. We are also coming to the table with water utilities, state and federal agencies, and environmental groups in a stakeholder process intended to promote wise water use planning and keep the Duck’s watershed healthy.
Building on the Byhalia victory
In July 2021, 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 to provide the legal muscle necessary to help residents protect their communities. This win 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, our Environmental Justice Initiative coordinated the filing of a federal Title VI complaint with the EPA under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, alleging the state environmental agency 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.
Addressing TVA’s coal ash problem
TVA wants to leave coal ash in leaking, unlined pits throughout most of Tennessee, threatening groundwater and public health across the state. SELC challenged a permit that allows TVA’s Kingston plant to continue polluting the Clinch Rivers with seepage from unlined coal ash pits and landfills and is calling on the state to employ modern treatment technology. This case could set the bar for all of TVA’s remaining coal plants in the state. In Memphis, we are representing local partners to push against TVA’s plan to truck its coal ash across several south Memphis communities that are predominately Black. Residents are already unfairly burdened with industrial pollution, including TVA’s, and TVA must consider this history in its plans to dispose of its toxic coal ash.
Moving away from fossil fuel power
SELC is pushing hard on TVA to jumpstart 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 coal-fired power plants, with new natural gas plants, which will require pipelines that disrupt rural communities and continue to dirty our air with greenhouse gases and other pollutants. SELC is pressing TVA to adopt a clean energy mix—with efficiency, solar, and storage—instead of this proposal, which could singlehandedly derail President Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035.
Solutions start in Tennessee.
Nonprofit and nonpartisan, we are the Southern Environmental Law Center. The South’s largest and most effective environmental defender.
Making space for clean energy
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 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.
Protecting waterways in the face of rampant growth
Led by Nashville, Middle Tennessee is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, and people 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 this growth 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.