This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a non-profit dedicated to support reporting on American financial struggle.
Hundreds of feet below the city of Memphis, Tennessee, an enormous collection of freshwater – known as the Memphis Sand Aquifer – provides drinking water for at least a million residents.
Memphis, the largest US city to rely 100% on groundwater, is said to have the sweetest water in the world.
Across South Memphis, a cluster of low-income, mostly Black neighborhoods, there are a staggering number of toxic waste sites: 33 in all. These sites pose a dual threat: they risk contaminating the aquifer, and above ground, they endanger the lives of residents with noxious emissions. Residents say enough is enough.
This isn’t the first time residents in South Memphis have taken a stand against being treated like a dumping ground. In 2020, the community successfully rallied against the construction of the Byhalia crude oil pipeline, which would have exposed residents and the aquifer to the risk of oil leaks or spills.
Today, Justin Pearson, president of Memphis Community Against Pollution, is hoping to use that momentum to tackle a new threat: the transportation and storage of three million more tons of toxic waste across their community.
Last July, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced plans to move 3.5m cubic yards of coal ash from its Allen plant to the South Shelby landfill near the Tennessee-Mississippi border.
Coal ash is the leftover dust and sludge from burning coal for electricity that commingles heavy metals and radioactive materials at levels far above those naturally found in coal bedrock and in amounts dangerous to human health.
It is often cheaply stored in wet ponds near these facilities to prevent the feather-light dust from becoming airborne and flying away.
Tennessee has known about the dangers of coal ash: in 2008, TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, 400 miles east of Memphis, spilled more than 6bn gallons of coal ash across rural Tennessee.
In 2015, new federal guidance forced coal companies to test the groundwater near their coal ash sites. That’s when TVA discovered high levels of contaminants in the shallow aquifer overtop the Memphis Sand Aquifer.
Arsenic had formed a plume – 300 times above safe levels – in the shallow aquifer, above fissures in the Memphis Sand aquifer, endangering the entire region’s drinking water supply.
The state ordered TVA to move the coal ash off the aquifer. So in November, TVA began trucking it through nearly 20 miles of neighborhoods and commercial areas. Its final resting point: the South Shelby landfill, in South Memphis.
MCAP worries about the dangers of transporting coal ash through so much of the city, and ending up in their neighborhood. And they say TVA’s decision-making process around selecting the South Shelby landfill wasn’t transparent.
In a statement, TVA said it plans to “safely remove the coal ash from the Allen site [and] store the coal ash for the long-term in a highly engineered, lined landfill, and restore the site for the benefit of the community, all while ensuring the continued protection of the Memphis aquifer”.
In February, Sarah Houston, director of Protect Our Aquifer, a Memphis-based non-profit, navigated from the passenger seat as we retraced the coal ash truck route.
We left the industrial corridor, hopped on I-55, and arrived in Whitehaven, where dollar stores, fast-food restaurants and half a dozen churches line the residential road.
TVA reported the coal ash truck route passes just 39 homes (plus 72 businesses and an apartment complex of 36 units) but Houston’s non-profit found 1,500 residences within a quarter-mile of the route.
And most people in this community probably don’t know they’ll be affected. Houston says that TVA didn’t help the community understand the coal ash route and why they were trucking toxic waste through their neighborhoods.
In response, the TVA shared that Angela Austin, the construction manager for the project, often travels along the haul route. “I have no choice but to make this successful because this is my neighborhood,” said Austin.
Pearl Walker, coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, lives six blocks from the truck route.
The trucks ran for four months before Walker found out about them.
By early March, TVA had moved roughly 55,000 cubic yards of coal ash from the Allen plant to the South Shelby landfill – enough to fill over 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
With giant, 10-wheeler trucks making 120 trips a day, TVA estimates it will take 10 years to remove the coal ash. Trucks will also need to cut across South Memphis and back along a separate route to cover the ash and keep it in place.
Eventually we turn down the narrow two-lane road before reaching Republic Services, where a newly-built landfill, engineered with a clay and a poly liner, is safer than the unlined pits where coal ash is usually stored.
This is where the coal ash will sit for the foreseeable future.
But notably, the landfill is still overtop the aquifer.
TVA says it has held 40 public events over the last five years, including some meetings with Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club. But community leaders say if they heard about these meetings at all, they amounted to little more than Zoom presentations.
City council members like Jeff Warren – are pushing TVA to release documents that show how they chose the South Shelby landfill, and to provide additional options for where to move the coal ash that remains at Allen.
Warren and other council members are in a unique position of power. While only Congress controls TVA, city council controls the budget for Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW), west Tennessee’s local power company and TVA’s largest customer.
MLGW has been threatening to leave TVA’s system for cheaper and more renewable energy options. Since TVA wants to keep MLGW, residents could have historic influence over TVA’s coal ash decisions.
“How TVA handles this coal ash situation will directly affect where the council approves MLGW to go in the future,” Warren said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that those two things will be related.”
In February, we met Pearson, president of MCAP, at a small rally in downtown Memphis commemorating the 1968 sanitation workers strike.
Fifty-four years ago, 1,300 Black sanitation workers began a march against poor wages and dangerous working conditions that had led to the deaths of two garbage collectors – Echol Cole and Robert Walker – who were sheltering from cold rain in the back of their truck when the vehicle malfunctioned and crushed them to death.
The ensuing two-month strike launched the national environmental justice movement.
We met Frank Johnson, a South Memphis resident, who wore a 54-year-old “I Am A Man” sign, now pocked with brown age spots around the softened edges, he found in the back of his father’s closet.
Pearson said the issue is bigger than just South Memphis.
“The truth is, TVA thinks that Black folks are just gonna have to endure whatever decision they make,” he said. “That people who live here are just gonna have to take it. They are wrong.”
Pearson worries imagines residents will be demoralized when they hear about yet another injustice in their backyards. But he and Houston still plan to canvas the neighborhood this spring, sharing information on the truck route, educating the public on coal ash, and providing avenues for reporting problems like airborne dust or dirt escaping from the truck beds.
He wants TVA to be transparent and open to community input about its coal ash decisions to set a precedent for how TVA will clean up at least 17 other coal ash impoundments across the state.