TVA Drilling Controversy May Change Well Actions

By Bill Dries

The controversy over Tennessee Valley Authority drilling water wells into the Memphis aquifer for the new TVA power plant in southwest Memphis is becoming a push for more public notice of such plans and better mapping of the water supply under the city.

Jerry Collins

The TVA abandoned original plans to use wastewater to cool the engines that are to generate electricity at the $1 billion power plant under construction. Instead, TVA has already drilled several water wells to tap the Memphis aquifer for millions of gallons of water a day.

That has prompted a lawsuit by the Sierra Club in Shelby County Chancery Court seeking to appeal the well permits granted by Shelby County government. There is also legislation pending in the Tennessee Legislature.

“If there is one good thing that’s come out of all of this, it’s that the process for issuing permits for wells must be changed and the sooner the better,” said Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president and CEO Jerry Collins on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

MLGW has no regulatory authority over wells other than the 170 it has across Shelby County. That number doesn’t include private and industrial wells.

Scott Banbury of the Sierra Club is talking with Shelby County commissioners about an update of county well regulations.

“It was very progressive when Shelby County adopted these well regulations,” Banbury said. “And they didn’t grow with the times. And what we’ve come to understand as time moves on is that there are other things we should be considering besides those that were laid out in the local ordinance.”

Brian Waldron, a civil engineer who heads the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering at the University of Memphis, says the need for closer regulation and more knowledge of what is below the ground is acute in southwest Memphis where the TVA plant is being built.

“The issue in that particular area is further contamination,” he said, citing 10 naturally occurring holes or breaches in the clay layer through which contaminated groundwater could find its way into the aquifer.

“There’s no real way to go out across the entire county and identify where all of the breaches could be. It’s cost prohibitive,” Waldron added. “But we do know that in this particular area near Presidents Island, there are two breaches. And there is data from the Corps of Engineers that shows that the Mississippi River moves across that entire area … and could very well have eroded clay. We don’t know.”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page,

Waldron estimates better mapping of breaches and sensitive areas in southwest Memphis would cost an extra $250,000 over a two-to-three-year period. For the whole county, the cost would be $750,000 a year over five years.

“You can’t make smart decisions without data,” he said. “While we have a lot, we don’t have enough. That’s kind of the issue we are running up against.”

Collins agrees. “You cannot get too much information.”

Banbury said the Sierra Club lawsuit does not seek an injunction or temporary restraining order to stop TVA’s drilling of wells, which is already underway.

“TVA’s not going to turn these wells on until as early as next summer,” he said. “Hopefully the lawsuit is over by then. Even if we prevail, TVA may still keep those wells in place as a backup. One of the things they’ve talked about is reliability and we believe there should be reliability, too.”

The Sierra Club backed the original plan to abandon the current coal-fired TVA power plant for a natural-gas fired plant.

TVA announced this month it will use some biogas generated from the city’s T.E. Maxson Wastewater Treatment Plant at the new facility under construction. The biogas is in addition to natural gas that will power the plant, replacing the nearby Allen Fossil Plant that is a coal-fired plant. The existing Allen Plant also uses some biogas in boilers along with coal.

In an interview last month with The Daily News, TVA board chairwoman Lynn Evans of Memphis said she stands behind the decision to drill wells. Evans also said conditions could change.

“People are still evaluating the technology and technology changes. In years to come if a different decision needs to be made I’m sure that would take place,” she said. “Based upon the information provided to us I have no problem. I’m one of the people who drinks the water straight from the tap. I absolutely think the water is safe.”

There are two new bills in the Tennessee Legislature filed last week by Shelby County legislators on the matter. The proposals were telegraphed during a half-day tour by state Sens. Brian Kelsey and Lee Harris last month that included the borders of the TVA site and MLGW’s Sheahan Pumping Station.

The first bill by Harris and Kelsey – sponsored by fellow Shelby delegation member G.A. Hardaway in the House – would require 14 days advance notice to the state or local governments with jurisdiction over wells of the intent to drill.

The second bill, sponsored by Kelsey and Ron Lollar, also of Shelby County, in the House, would create a Memphis Sands Aquifer regional management board.