Last year, Norfolk Southern wanted to build its massive new rail facility a quarter-mile from the Wolf River, just east of Rossville. But the facility was relocated to Fayette County after landowner William Adair, a Wolf River supporter, offered his property in response to protests about pollution impacting the river.
Now the latest site has come under fire by environmentalists and some Fayette County residents because it sits atop a recharge area for the Memphis Sand aquifer, which supplies Memphis' ground water.
"Thousands of semi trucks will be coming in and out of there every day," said Nancy Brannon, chair of the Sierra Club. "You're relocating a lot of sources of petroleum contamination right on top of the aquifer where we get our drinking water."
The recharge area starts on the eastern end of Shelby County and extends all the way through Jackson, Tennessee. In the recharge area, the aquifer lies near the surface where rainfall can easily penetrate the ground and recharge groundwater resources.
In contrast, the aquifer in much of Memphis is located much deeper, anywhere from 300 to 500 feet below the surface and under a virtually impenetrable layer of clay.
At a Collierville public meeting on the facility hosted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Monday night, Piperton resident Elliott Faris encouraged TDOT to conduct additional environmental studies on the impact to the aquifer.
"We are very proud of our water and we want it to be maintained," Faris told a panel of TDOT officials and representatives from Norfolk Southern.
Robin Hagerty of AMEC, the environmental consultant for Norfolk Southern, told attendees that the rail company would cover the affected recharge area with a clay layer similar to the layer that sits over the aquifer in much of Memphis. The clay layer would then be covered with a concrete slab.
Hagerty said AMEC studied what other construction projects over the recharge area had done in the past and determined there were no local construction standards in place for building on aquifers.
"We're going above and beyond," Hagerty said.
Dan Larson, an earth sciences professor at the University of Memphis, says the potential hazards to the aquifer are minor.
"Norfolk Southern has accounted for how to handle any waters that might be dirty in any way," Larson said. "I don't see a lot to be concerned about."
Larson pointed out that the recharge area spans eight to 10 counties, including the entire city of Jackson.
"It's not a small area, so there are all sorts of things in the recharge area of the Memphis aquifer that people probably don't want to know about," Larson said.