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VOL. 132 | NO. 19 | Thursday, January 26, 2017

State Sens. Harris, Kelsey Critical of TVA Water Wells

By Bill Dries

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When Odell Johnson goes on business trips he looks forward to seeing water pumping plants in other cities that use surface water for drinking water.

Johnson is the manager for water and engineering operations at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division. He made the comment Tuesday, Jan. 24, as his tour of the utility’s Sheahan Pumping Station served as a backdrop for the ongoing debate about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s change of plans to cool its new natural gas-fired power plant in southwest Memphis.

MLGW pumping stations get the city’s drinking water from groundwater below the surface. It requires less filtration than surface water.

“Their plants are more exciting,” he said of the surface water treatment plants in other cities. “Ours are boring.”

From behind the massive metal door at the circa-1930s facility near the University of Memphis, Johnson’s primer on the city’s groundwater was heard by state Sens. Lee Harris and Brian Kelsey.

They and critics of TVA’s decision to drill its own wells into the Memphis aquifer to cool the new power plant also heard from Brian Waldron, the university’s associate professor of civil engineering with the Center for Applied Earth Science & Engineering Research – or CAESER.

Waldron, with maps of the city, detailed well fields and verified breaches of the aquifer. Waldron said there were details about what might happen with the TVA wells he didn’t know and wouldn’t know without an opportunity to conduct more studies on a more frequent basis.

“I just wish there was a discussion,” he said at the end of the session, after being asked about the likelihood the TVA wells could damage the city’s aquifer.

The tour came the day after new TVA board chairwoman V. Lynn Evans of Memphis told The Daily News the decision to drill its own wells was in line with the TVA’s mission to provide low-cost energy.

Evans said the federal authority is still evaluating technology and changes in that technology as the nearly $1 billion plant is under construction.

“In years to come, if a different decision needs to be made, I’m sure that would take place,” said Evans, a former MLGW board member. “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.”

MLGW president Jerry Collins said he had hoped the TVA would stick with its original plan to use “gray water” – treated wastewater – to cool engines of the plant. His second alternative would have been for TVA to buy the 3.5 million gallons of water needed per day from MLGW. Having the TVA drill its own wells was his third choice.

“The treatment cost would have been probably $5 million or $6 million a year, which sounds like a lot,” Collins said of the treated gray water from the nearby Maxson wastewater treatment plant. “But in the overall scheme of things, I think it’s a good investment in the environment.”

Kelsey and Harris came down against the wells by the end of the tour, which included stopping outside the TVA construction site at Frank Pidgeon Industrial Park.

“I feel more convinced now that drilling these wells was not the best way to provide water to the TVA plant,” said Kelsey, a Republican. “I’m hopeful that TVA will reconsider its decision. More importantly, this TVA plant has brought out just how important this issue is for all commercial enterprises that are drawing water out of our Memphis aquifer.”

Kelsey is sponsoring legislation that would create a regional authority “over large wells that are drilled, especially wells that are drilled near the clay layer above the aquifer.”

Harris, a Democrat, noted that the cost estimate given by Waldron for continuous studies for possible breaches and their effect ranged from $250,000 to $750,000.

“They could afford to do some sampling,” he said of TVA. “If they are building a billion-dollar facility … surely we can spend another $250k for sampling to make sure there is peace of mind for all of the concerns we’ve heard.”

Kelsey said the TVA made the right decision environmentally in moving to close its coal-fired plant across the road and build the cleaner-burning, natural gas-fired power plant.

“There is no doubt that this plant is a thousand times cleaner for the air. This is a wonderful move forward for this community,” Kelsey said. “The potential problem is this plant is also going to be drawing water up out of the ground and when it does, that it’s also going to be pulling water from the surface, which is dirty water, down into the aquifer. We don’t want to sacrifice our clean water source just so that we can get clean air.”

Harris said the issue isn’t whether there will be enough water for the needs of the TVA plant. The use per day is less than the approximately 4 million gallons of water a day used by Cargill operations that were supplied by MLGW.

“It’s about the next generation and the next generation after that,” he said. “That’s what we want to make sure we preserve and pass on to the next generation. Sure there’s enough water for everybody here right now. … Are we really willing to compromise this endowment to simply save a little bit of money now?”

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