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‘You haven’t been a good community partner’: Memphis residents skeptical of TVA promises

Tennessee Lookout  


    The Tennessee Valley Authority promised Wednesday to treat Memphians better if it were kept as an energy provider for the next two decades, but community activists that have long battled for increased transparency and accountability say they doubt TVA will change its ways.

    As Memphis, Light, Gas and Water continues discussions on whether to leave TVA, sign a short-term contract or commit to a long-term contract, TVA Chief Executive Officer Jeff Lyash addressed concerns consistently brought up by activists and local leaders about the agency’s alleged mistreatment of low-income communities in the past.

    Last week, MLGW revealed its list of vendors to potentially replace an 80-year partnership with TVA before staff ultimately concluded that a 20-year contract with TVA that renews each decade would still yield the cheapest energy prices for Memphis customers. Following a 30-day public comment period, MLGW staff will issue another recommendation to the utility’s board for consideration before heading to the Memphis City Council.

    You haven’t been a good community partner and this is just an example of possibly how you're going to be moving forward once you get the new contract for 20 years.

    Pearl Walker, environmental climate and justice chair for the Memphis chapter of the NAACP

    At Wednesday’s board meeting, Lyash told board members that a renewing, 20-year contract with TVA would allow it to commit to zero-carbon in 2050; diversify its energy portfolio, which includes natural gas; allow for energy burden support for low-income communities and support an increased presence in Memphis, among other benefits. In total, TVA said a long-term contract would provide $1.3 billion in benefits over the next 10 years.

    “In order to do that, it takes the long term commitment by the provider with TVA to invest the capital in this new technology, and it takes long-term commitment by the customers to be able to do that affordably and reliably, ” he said.

    Lyash also addressed concerns about TVA’s role in the coal ash now stored near a predominantly low-income, Black neighborhood of about 72,000 residents.

    A worker cleaning up coal ash in 2009 without wearing personal protective gear. (Photo courtesy of Ben West)
    A worker cleaning up coal ash in 2009 without wearing personal protective gear. (Photo courtesy of Ben West)

    For the next few years, TVA will remove coal ash from the now defunct-Allen Fossil Plant after samples taken in 2017 from nearby shallow groundwater revealed elevated levels of arsenic. Because the toxins could leak into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which Memphis and Shelby County depend on for drinking water, haste was needed to prevent contamination. TVA closed the Allen Plant in 2018 and then notified the Memphis City Council, who agreed to sign a memorandum of agreement with TVA and ceded all authority to them. Then TVA officials informed council members in 2021 that after careful consideration of several locations, the South Shelby Landfill was chosen and had met all the requirements for safe, long-term storage of coal ash.

    Both Memphis residents and city officials were shocked to learn that the decision was already final and had been approved by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

    A subsequent public records request by environmental groups then revealed that TVA had already made its decision six months before informing the city and were able to obtain the necessary permits before addressing the Memphis City Council.

    Community activists also learned that TVA officials had considered seven landfills to house the coal ash, and all were located in low-income and predominantly minority communities in different states.

    “We feel that it’s disingenuous for you all to go to the state and get permission to dump coal ash in our community while you simultaneously want a 20-year contract,” said Pearl Walker, the environmental climate and justice chair for the Memphis chapter of the NAACP. Walker also lives in Whitehaven and observes trucks daily carrying coal ash near her home.

    “You haven’t been a good community partner and this is just an example of possibly how you’re going to be moving forward once you get the new contract for 20 years,” Walker said.

    In May, the Memphis City Council passed a resolution asking TVA to conduct a Supplemental Impact Statement on how transporting and storing coal ash in South Memphis could impact community members but have yet to receive a response.

    “The coal ash is such an insult,” said Walker.

    Vickie Terry, executive director for the NAACP Memphis branch, disagreed with Walker and other community leaders about TVA’s role in the community, adding that the NAACP has not taken an official stance. Terry said that she personally respected TVA’s involvement in Memphis.

    Lyash assured the community that the trucks carrying the coal ash are specifically designed to prevent potentially toxic coal ash from escaping into the nearby communities.

    Two coal ash ponds near the Allen Plant are currently being remediated. Removal of the west pond is expected to be completed next year and the east pond will be completed in six years.

    “I understand this is a difficult issue. It’s a legacy that we have to responsibly take care of,” he said, adding that the goal is to “not to remove the ash as quickly as possible but to remove it as safely with minimal impact as possible.”

    Lyash also promised the MLGW board that if they committed to a long-term contract, TVA would improve its admittingly neglected presence in Memphis by dedicating TVA staff in Memphis to energy-burden reduction.

    But for long-suffering community activists, TVA’s promises were too little, too late.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant. (Photo: Courtesy of TVA)
    The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cumberland Fossil Plant. (Photo: Courtesy of TVA)

    “What motivation is TVA going to have to start treating us better if we’re already locked into this never-ending contract that auto renews every year?” said Sarah Houston, executive director with Protect Our Aquifer.

    “What he says up there is a very beautiful, polished version of multiple times TVA has acted against the interests of the community and our drinking water supply and we have had to call them on it,” she said.

    “We have had to file letters, pass resolutions, hold rallies, like, we have had to put a lot of time and energy into TVA’s original decision in order to get them to change their minds,” she added.

    Walker said TVA presented the long-term contract as “all or nothing. It’s 20 years or nothing.”

    “MLGW needs to stand firm, and they need to negotiate from a position of power,” she said.

    Before MLGW makes its final decision, community activists and environmental organizations requested that the public comment period be extended in order to review the vendor list and contract options.

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