'I find that hard to believe': Memphis City Council dissatisfied with TVA's answers on coal ash

Samuel Hardiman
Memphis Commercial Appeal
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When the Tennessee Valley Authority said it was pausing plans for the remediation of coal ash at the Allen Fossil Plant, it raised hope for some that the ash would not be buried at a Memphis landfill southeast of Memphis International Airport. 

The company's actions since then have likely demonstrated that the pause was not much more than a public relations maneuver, at least according to a few members of the city council. And, on Tuesday, it essentially told the Memphis City Council that it plans to bury the coal ash at the South Shelby landfill as planned. 

More on this:Memphis City Council to TVA: Don't bury coal ash here

TVA executives touted the public relations process it had undertaken over the previous several weeks — a pair of virtual community events and some mailers it says it sent throughout the community. TVA also brought along members of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the company that manages the landfill, Republic Services.

Previously:'There is always more we can do': TVA pauses plans to bury Allen coal ash in Memphis. For now.

Council members respond, TVA's answers remain limited

That effort did not impress the city of Memphis' legislative body. 

Councilman Jeff Warren asked repeatedly why TVA was still planning on burying coal ash at the South Shelby landfill, which is over the Memphis Sand aquifer, the drinking water supply for Shelby County.

The ash is currently sitting in two ponds near the retired Allen Fossil Plant. TDEC officials said at a public meeting two weeks ago that the status of the ash near the aquifer had hastened the cleanup process.

TVA did not offer any alternatives for burial outside of Memphis during the city council meeting Tuesday and the federally owned power provider appeared committed to burying the ash in Memphis. 

TVA Allen Fossil Plant seen across McKellar Lake on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. The coal plant, which closed in 2018, is likely responsible for much of the carbon Memphis put in the atmosphere over the last six decades.

"This is the best selection for this particular project," Scott Turnbow of TVA said. 

Turnbow's responses did not sit well with Councilman Chase Carlisle. 

"I find that hard to believe," Carlisle told the TVA executives about whether the South Shelby Landfill is the only option for coal ash removal and burial.  He critiqued the public relations process underway.

"It doesn't seem to me that these are good-faith conversations...," he said it appeared TVA was "checking boxes" to continue down the path toward the Memphis landfill. "It doesn't seem like there's an actual effort...," he said.

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TVA spent part of its time before the city council touting the incentive package and effort it provided in helping land Ford and SK Innovations as tenants for the Memphis Regional Megasite. The council offered muted praise of the company's efforts, questioned why Memphis city limits weren't seeing similar investments and asked about the terms of the incentives. 

"I don't think TVA has treated us like its best customer," Councilman Martavius Jones said. "..It's the West Tennessee megasite. You can put the Memphis name on it. .." 

Jones said he wanted TVA to commit funds to rehabilitate the dilapidated old Firestone factory site in North Memphis. 

TVA to continue talks 

The simmering hostility of Tuesday's meeting was not lost on TVA, and the company pledged to come back to the city council to talk again. 

"There's a lot to unpack in that," Mark Yates of TVA said of Warren and Carlisle's comments. Yates, who until last year ran the Memphis Black Business Association, is now the Memphis regional vice president for TVA, a move that was seen in Memphis political circles as an effort to woo Memphis. 

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The city council is a governmental entity TVA leadership would rather not displease. The body will vote on Memphis, Light, Gas and Water's future within TVA.

MLGW and Shelby County get all of the area's electricity from TVA, but, after years of drama, is asking the private sector for bids on its electricity supply and could leave TVA. 

Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman. 

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