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Removing Toxic Coal Ash From Allen Plant Enters Logistics Phase

Cameron Rutt for WKNO

The process of relocating toxic waste—about 3.5 million cubic yards of it—will soon begin at a Southwest Memphis industrial site. For the next month, the public can comment on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash removal plan that has local environmentalists demanding strong oversight.

When the TVA shut down its coal-burning Allen Fossil Plant in 2018, it left behind two storage ponds full of ash, which contain poisonous substances like arsenic and lead. Due to concerns that these toxins could seep into Memphis’ drinking water, the federally-owned utility faced added pressure to remove the ash from the site.

TVA has proposed trucking the coal ash to either or both the South Shelby Landfill, which is about 20 miles away, or nearly 30 miles south to the Tunica Landfill in Mississippi. TVA says that either dump site will be lined so the ash doesn’t seep out.

At a virtual presentation Tuesday night, members of the public submitted electronic questions about how the ash would be removed, transported and eventually stored.

“We want them to dig up that ash, and get it away from our aquifer, but we also don’t want it to cause people problems somewhere else,” said Scott Banbury with the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We want worker safety measures put in place to avoid what happened in Kingston.”

The Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee is the site of the country’s largest coal fly ash spill in 2008. The cleanup led to lawsuits by workers hired to remediate the mess. They’ve argued that the contractor Jacobs Engineering failed to provide them proper safety equipment, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of others developing serious illnesses such as cancer.

Banbury also questions how much meaningful engagement is taking place in neighborhoods along the proposed transport routes to the landfills.

“We want the communities who are going to be impacted by these hundreds of trucks going through their communities to really understand safety concerns there,” Banbury said, adding that because of the nature of the virtual presentation, he couldn’t gauge how many in attendance represented those who would be most impacted.

Construction manager at the Allen plant Angela Austin was among several TVA employees fielding questions Tuesday. She stressed that the agency prioritizes safety and said that the utility is still exploring possible routes to the dump sites.

“We’re currently gathering traffic data to help inform a traffic management plan and help us identify specific issues that would need to be addressed,” she said.

Both road and rail transportation have been considered, though Austin says trucks could do the job faster.

Austin said TVA works with contractors on their safety protocols.

“They will use a specialty type of truck to contain the ash within their trucks. They will be covered,” she said. “We’ll also ensure before it leaves the site there is a certain amount of moisture. Not wet of course, but we don’t want it to where any of that fly ash can leave that truck so it has to have a certain amount of moisture in transportation.”

Air quality monitoring will also be in place, Austin said.

TVA also said it was reaching out to neighborhood associations and is in the process of creating a newsletter with regular updates.

Cleanup of the site became more urgent for environmental groups after a report found elevated levels of toxic pollutants in groundwater near one of the ponds. While monitoring of the area has not found that the contaminants have leaked into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the source of the city’s drinking water, a study did find breaches in the protective clay layer that separates the groundwater from the aquifer, increasing concerns about future contamination. 

As part of the proposed cleanup plan, TVA will pump the contaminated water, treat it on site and then send it to the Memphis sewer system.

Fully restoring the property for future economic development could take up to a decade.

“All across the nation there is a shortage of good industrial sites that include rail and river,” said Aaron Stewart, a TVA economic development specialist. “This has the potential to be a very, very good asset for the Memphis community and Shelby County."

The public can comment on the proposed plan until December 17.