Arguments began Wednesday on two permits for wells that the Tennessee Valley Authority wants to drill, tapping Memphis drinking water to cool its proposed energy plant.
The Shelby County Groundwater Quality Control Board (SCGCB) heard testimony from the Sierra Club, Shelby County officials, and from the TVA Wednesday but had not rendered a decision in the matter as of early Wednesday afternoon.
The board has 30 days from the end of the hearing that began Wednesday morning to render a decision in the matter.
The TVA plans to pull 3.5 million gallons of Memphis drinking water per day from the Memphis Sands aquifer to cool its proposed Allen Combined Cycle Plant, a natural gas plant to replace the former coal-burning power plant in Memphis. TVA’s original plan was to use waste water to cool new the plant but officials said that plan added cost to the overall project and would not provide a reliable source of water for the plant.
The Shelby County Health Department issued the TVA permits for five wells, all it would need for the project. But permits for two of them were appealed in September by the local chapter of the Sierra Club. Wednesday’s hearing before the groundwater board were on the appeals.
Wednesday’s hearing was a judicial proceeding, meaning it played like a court case with attorneys, evidence, and more with the SCGQCB acting as the jury. Dozens packed the crowded hearing room at the county's
Construction Code Enforcement building close to Shelby Farms. Many of the attendees wore blue t-shirts that read: "Save Our Aquifer."
Robert McLean, an attorney with Farris Bobango, acted as the proceeding’s moderator and reminded the large crowd that they were not allowed to participate and “you must treat this as if you were sitting in federal court listening to testimony.”
Further, McLean said, as a judicial proceeding, members of the board were not to be lobbied by members of the public. However, many board members said they had been contacted, mainly through email, from many members of the Sierra Club and “from the public at large.”
McLean asked board member Odell Johnson to recuse himself from the vote, as Johnson works with Memphis Light Gas & Water, which, of course, does business with TVA. Scott Morgan, an employee with the city of Memphis, recused himself from the vote as the city does business with TVA.
Board chairman David McCray noted that his company does business with the TVA. However, he did not recuse himself as he said his company’s TVA work was a very small portion of his overall business.
TVA attorney Edward Meade noted that board member Nancy Brannon is a past president of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. However, Brannon did not recuse herself immediately from the vote, noting that she hasn’t worked with the organization for many years. She did, recuse herself later, after she was seen during the hearings on a videotape from a Sierra Club forum on the wells.
Webb Brewer, the attorney for the Sierra Club, said the club objected to using fresh water to cool the plant because doing so would have adverse effects on the area’s drinking water supply. Quality and quantity of water could be affected, he said, as the TVA wanted to pull so much from the aquifer and that drilling wells could draw contaminated water into the Memphis Sands aquifer from other aquifers.
He said the permits issued for the wells broke local well rules because other adequate water sources exist for TVA’s needs, there was no justifiable need for them, that the wells could contaminate local drinking water, and that cooling the plant did not amount to a “reasonable use” of the water.
“We have a plentiful water supply,” Brewer said. “However, we have no guarantee that plentiful supply will continue. It is the position of the Sierra Club that if there are other alternatives for not using clear, drinking water, that should be done.”
Carter Gray, assistant Shelby County attorney, said he was prepared to prove to board members that the Shelby County Health Department did due research on the wells before issuing the permits and that it followed all rules and regulations in issuing them. He said TVA’s plan would have no adverse effect on the quality or quantity of the area’s drinking water.
Meade said he was present only to give the board backup information. He noted the new energy plant will cost $1 billion, produce 1,000 megawatts of power, enough to serve 650,00 homes or about 1.7 million people in the Memphis area.
Meade said TVA considered many options to cool the plant before deciding to use fresh water for the aquifer. He said TVA considered purchasing water from MLGW, though, he said that option wouldn’t work because of demand issues and reliability concerns. TVA also considered using water from the Mississippi River and from other local aquifers.
However, tapping the Memphis Sands aquifer “was the most reliable, most cost-effective option” to cool the new energy plant.
He said TVA has a sampling program in place for the wells so that it could focus on problems “based on data, not based on fear and speculation.”
“This [hearing] is about rules being complied with, versus emotion,” Meade said. “What you board members got [from the public] was emotional and there’s concern and somewhat of a risk-fear, risk-type issue that’s been put out there as to why this is a bad idea.
“The TVA withdrawal of water from the Memphis Sand at the proposed rates of 3.5 million gallons per day does not pose a risk to the quality of water in the Memphis Sand aquifer. It does not pose a risk to Shelby County drinking water.”