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This story is part of a 12-part investigation by the Chicago Investigative Project in the graduate program at the Medill School at Northwestern University.
Pearl Walker lives right next to the Interstate 55 exit on the south side of Memphis. Every day she watches over 100 rust-red trucks loaded with toxic coal ash from the nearby coal plant barrel past on their way to a local municipal landfill.
The landfill is the final resting place for 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash — enough to fill two and a half Empire State Buildings — from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Allen Fossil Plant. For decades residents have dealt with air pollution from the plant. When federal rules mandated the plant’s coal ash ponds had to close, residents made clear they wanted the ash removed from their community.
But even as TVA held public meetings and told residents it was considering various options, the federal agency was already moving forward with its plans to haul coal ash to the South Shelby Landfill in South Memphis, documents obtained through a public records request showed. Coal-ash-laden trucks will traverse local streets for at least 8 years, under TVA’s plans, continuing a legacy of environmental injustice and lack of accountability, as many see it.
Walker is concerned about diesel emissions from the trucks and the potential for coal ash to spill out in a crash. As an environmental justice advocate and long-time resident of the neighborhood known as Whitehaven, Walker feels disrespected by the agencies and elected officials who approved this plan.
Toxic coal ash is stored at more than 700 sites nationwide. Groundwater has been contaminated at the majority of sites, according to environmental groups’ analysis of testing data reported by utility and power companies. Many of the pits are being closed leaving the ash in place, to the outrage of environmental activists. TVA, the federal utility that ran the Allen plant for six decades, decided to remove the ash from the Allen Plant and bring it to a landfill — generally considered the most environmentally safe option. But nationwide, minority and low-income neighborhoods are more likely to find municipal and hazardous waste landfills in their communities.
TVA ultimately narrowed its options to seven landfills: the North Shelby and South Shelby landfills in Tennessee, the Tunica Landfill in Mississippi, the Arrowhead Landfill in Alabama, the Taylor County Disposal Landfill in Georgia, the Lee County Landfill in South Carolina, and the Laraway Recycling and Disposal Facility in Illinois.
The seven sites had one thing in common: all were located in low-income and predominantly minority communities.
Arrowhead Landfill, located in Uniontown, Alabama — a highly impoverished Black community — had already received 4 million cubic yards of coal ash from the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill in 2008.
TVA said it might take coal ash to the Tennessee or Mississippi landfills by truck; it could use trains for the Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina landfills; and the Illinois landfill could be reached by barge. Memphis residents knew they didn’t want the trucks or the coal ash in their community, but they felt they had little say in the process.
“[The process] lacks integrity and accountability, it is taking place but we don’t know if and or how we’re being compromised,” Walker said. “The process can’t be trusted.”
TVA, founded under a New Deal plan to help supply cheap electricity and jobs in the rural South, once ran 13 coal-powered plants. Eight have since closed. Of the 13 plants, Allen was the only one located in a predominantly Black community.
Memphis is home to 66 facilities that release toxic pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory. Half of those facilities are located in South Memphis, including the Allen Plant, an oil refinery and the Memphis Defense Depot, a military chemical waste center.
Marquita Bradshaw, 48, has lived in South Memphis her whole life. Many of the toxic facilities were located near Bradshaw’s childhood home and school.
“The refinery was spewing out stuff where you could see it actually on the leaves, the particulate matter. You [could] see the black dust on the leaves, on the houses, on the cars, covering the ground,” Bradshaw said.
While walking to school, she remembers her skin would itch, she thinks from the contaminated air. Bradshaw still remembers the smell: putrid, like burning acid or oil.
Bradshaw has had reproductive abnormalities since she was 21 years old. She said her 67-year-old mother has kidney failure and is waiting for a transplant. Last year, her best friend since the seventh grade died from endocrine diseases and repeated problems with strokes and diabetes. Bradshaw, who serves as the environmental justice chair of the Sierra Club’s Chickasaw group and is the executive director of the environmental justice group Sowing Justice, blames toxic industries and fossil fuels for these health issues.
“This type of thing affects all of us,” Bradshaw said. “We have one environment. It’s not like there are actual barriers, if [the coal ash] fly off a truck when they are loading it up.”
Residents of South Memphis are more likely than the national average to develop cancer, according to a report from ProPublica. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, received an F grade for air quality on the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report in 2022.
Today, the Allen Plant’s ash pits are left with 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash, enough to cover 164 football fields. Stored for years in unlined pits, this coal ash has contaminated groundwater with arsenic at 350 times the safe limits for water, according to groundwater monitoring reports filed by the company. Long term exposure to arsenic from drinking water can cause cancer and skin lesions and is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cognitive impairment.
“It’s killing people, that’s what I am trying to tell folks,” said Justin J. Pearson, lifelong resident of South Memphis. “The injustices our communities are experiencing is slow violence. It’s slow lynching of Black folk and poor folk for the profit of the TVA and other corporations.”
Parade of trucks
At the Allen Plant, 10-wheeled trucks from V McGee Trucking Inc. are loaded up with coal ash before they head to the landfill across town. After about seven miles on interstate 55, they take the Shelby Drive exit through the Capleville, Whitehaven and Boxtown neighborhoods, a predominantly Black community full of colorful bungalows and friendly neighbors.
On Malone Road, leading to the South Shelby Landfill, there are a dozen homes, one church and a couple industrial plants.
According to the TVA, trucks will transport 120 loads of 17 cubic yards of coal ash to the landfill each day, 210 days per year. The trucks return to the Allen Plant after dropping off the waste, totalling 240 trips per day through South Memphis. Additionally, another fleet of trucks transports fill dirt from the nearby Boxtown neighborhood to the Allen Plant to replace the coal ash in the impoundment.
TVA acknowledged their plan would have significant impacts on noise, traffic, air quality, safety and community cohesion for the next eight to ten years. However, TVA did not assess those effects specifically on the South Memphis community, which Amanda Garcia, director of the Tennessee office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said is a critical step that is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“[TVA] kind of brushed that aside like this is a temporary impact. But 10 years doesn’t feel very temporary to me,” Garcia said.
Exposure to diesel exhaust can lead to serious health conditions like asthma, respiratory illnesses and can worsen existing heart and lung diseases.
Since 2015, Memphis has been among the worst places to live if you have asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
The trucks are equipped with a fitted tarp cover to prevent fugitive coal ash dust from flying out, according to TVA documents.
But Walker wonders what plans are in place if the trucks have an accident. She wants to know who is responsible if the coal ash spills.
“I’m deeply concerned, because this is my family,” said Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against Pollution. “We have 240 plus trucks going every day in the neighborhood for the next 10 years or so – [what does that do] to the air people are breathing.”
Lack of trust
In July 2021, TVA announced to Memphis City Council that they would proceed with removing the coal ash from the Allen Fossil Plant. At that time, TVA said they were deciding between dumping the waste at South Shelby Landfill or the landfill in Tunica, Mississippi.
Walker, who serves as the Memphis coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Environmental Climate and Justice chair for the Memphis NAACP, thought it was a “no brainer” that the ash would go to Tunica, a more remote town with a total population of about 2,000, compared to South Memphis’s population of 70,000.
But at the time of that announcement, TVA had already decided on the South Shelby Landfill, unbeknownst to residents.
According to emails between the TVA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the plan for the Allen Plant cleanup project was decided in January 2021, six months before TVA notified Memphis City Council or the residents of their decision. Emails were obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center through a public records request.
During those six months, TVA misled city officials and the public by holding community input meetings as if a landfill decision was still being made. Republic Services, the parent company of South Shelby Landfill, had already been chosen by TVA for the excavation, transportation and storage of the coal ash.
“They basically were already really committed to this plan,” said Garcia. “And that’s an egregious harm under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an egregious abuse of the trust and the responsibility of being a good neighbor in South Memphis.”
Most concerned residents didn’t learn until a virtual community meeting on Sept. 22, 2021 that South Shelby Landfill would be the sole recipient of the Allen Plant’s coal ash – nine months after TVA had made the decision.
Over the past five years, TVA hosted “40 public engagement events,” according to TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks. Additionally, the agency hosted two public meetings specifically about the plan for the Allen Plant coal ash removal.
Pearson said the virtual meeting was yet another instance of TVA moving forward without giving the community a say. “Providing updates versus where you’re engaging directly meaningfully with the community to help create a plan are really different things,” he said.
Since November 2021, the Southern Environmental Law Center, along with local Memphis environmental groups, have demanded that TVA produce a new environmental impact statement that evaluates the specific environmental risks from trucking the coal ash through South Memphis for the next eight years. They say such a report is needed to comply with NEPA.
Garica said TVA could not adequately evaluate the impact of their decision without more input from residents.
“I’m a big believer in the idea that people who live most proximate to the problem are often the ones that have the best information, and certainly the lived experience that should inform these big decisions that are going to affect their community for a decade,” Garcia said.
A better choice
Documents obtained through the public comment period indicate that TVA could have chosen a plan proposed by a more experienced company that wouldn’t burden South Memphis residents with trucks.
The company Waste Connections had proposed a five-year plan to remove all the ash by rail. Waste Connections has been handling coal ash for seven years, compared to Republic Services, which has managed coal ash only three times, according to testimony at a 2021 community meeting.
“How can the equivalent of putting 647 trucks on the road be safer than moving 11,000 [coal ash] tons by one unit train?” asked Waste Connections’ letter to TVA.
TVA considered Waste Connections’ sites in the original 2020 landfill analysis, but it was “eliminated because they did not meet the established criteria,” said Brooks in an email.
Pearson said the community would have liked to know more about the options and have a say.
“We want to understand what the other alternatives were for TVA, whether that be by rail, or different routes, or different locations for the coal ash to be dumped,” said Pearson, who sees TVA as “operating in this very clandestine corporate way.”
Pearson and Garcia believe that trucking the coal ash to South Shelby Landfill is the cheapest option for TVA. The federal agency refused to provide information about the total cost of trucking the coal ash to South Shelby Landfill. The entire Allen clean up project is budgeted to cost $500 million, according to the Associated Press.
Since TVA’s plan is set to take place over the next decade, activists think that alternatives to South Shelby Landfill can still be considered. Pearson proposed looking at an equitable redistribution of the coal ash based on how the electricity from the Allen Plant was distributed to the city of Memphis.
“Now the people who are most vulnerable are the ones who are going to be suffering,” Pearson said. “That’s not justice.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Marquita Bradshaw’s medical history.