MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) received the final regulatory approval it needed to remove tons of toxic coal ash through South Memphis in November of last year.
“The trucks started rolling. It’s enough ash to fill 21 football fields,” Pearl Walker, a south Memphis community member and environmental activist, said.
Republic Services, a contractor hired by the TVA, transports the toxic coal ash stored in pits near the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the region's drinking water supply, to the South Shelby Landfill. At this landfill, which they own, Republic buries the ash in lined pits to prevent any leaking into the ground.
“Whether the trucks travel via the interstate or through the city they still have to pass residential communities. Along the route, I know that there is one daycare and there are some homes,” Walker said.
Over time, for, nearly a decade, as hundreds of trucks roll through South Memphis the average resident is not aware of what's going on.
The years-long removal process and its current route, through predominantly black neighborhoods, is the biggest concern residents like Walker have, as research shows increases in lifetime cancer risk and a lower life expectancy in this area. It is these consequences, Justin J. Pearson, the president of the Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), says effects everyone.
“It is going to negatively affect the poor and lower wealth and black folks the most, but air doesn’t have a point where it stops and says ‘oh, this the black area’...”
Pearson and other local environmental groups are not against the removal of the coal ash near the Memphis Aquifer, agreeing it is a threat, but they suggest there are still alternative ways to transport the toxic ash that have been ignored.
“Trucking this coal ash may be the cheapest alternative for them financially but it is having detrimental effects to the people who live in the community,” Pearson said. “And they need to give us what alternatives exist including; potentially using rail, going to other places that may have fewer people and that would have fewer environmental justice impacts.”
Organizations like Pearson’s are currently galvanizing. Pearson and others are still asking Memphis City Council to work with the TVA to provide a more targeted environmental impact statement, now that the trucking has begun.
“The 'greater good' is a misnomer,” Walker said. “It’s kind of like a cliché and suggesting that this is the best option. This is not the best option. It is not the only option.”