MEMPHIS — It’s rare for a Black community to notch a win against a large industrial polluter, but that’s what happened on this city’s south side.
But it didn’t last long.
Just two weeks after Valero Energy Corp. and Plains All-American abandoned their pipeline bid, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced its plan to truck millions of tons of contaminated coal ash through south Memphis for nearly 10 years and dump it in a landfill there. And there was nothing residents could do to stop it.
What happened in south Memphis is another example of how industries constantly work to fight their way into communities of color already teeming with pollution — and get their way more often than not.
By spring this year, earthmovers were crawling on a mountain of the toxic pollutant and dumping it into trucks with sealed cabins to protect the drivers against breathing it. Every weekday, the convoy rolls toward Interstate 55, starting a 19-mile procession to dump waste laced with mercury, arsenic and other contaminants at a landfill in south Memphis and cover it with dirt.
Diesel trucks operated by a contractor, Republic Services, will make 240 trips per day to remove 3.2 million cubic yards of coal ash — about 4 million tons — through an environmental justice community that already faces heavy industrial pollution from nearby oil and gas refineries, pipelines, freeways, rail yards and trash dumps.
Residents, conservationists and local politicians who oppose the plan say that the TVA — the nation’s largest public utility — failed to consult them adequately or seriously consider less harmful alternatives.
In south Memphis, the coal ash convoy joins at least 22 other serious polluting industries, according to a University of Memphis study, creating a layering effect that has already led to much worse air quality and health outcomes than in most of the country.
A natural gas plant has also recently joined the neighborhood, and there is a push to make the community’s victory over the pipeline short-lived.
Excessive industrial pollution in Black, Indigenous and Latino communities across the country is pervasive. And recent studies show that negative health outcomes in these areas are directly linked to the ways that local governments and financial institutions adopted policies — known as redlining — that kept people of color confined to certain areas in cities, while supporting Whites who relocated to suburbs.
South Memphis — broken up into historic and iconic communities such as Boxtown, Whitehaven and Westwood — already has some of the dirtiest air in Tennessee. Measurements of ozone and particulate matter, particularly from diesel trucks, are well above levels considered to be safe, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The lifetime cancer risk is abnormally high, and the life expectancy rate, 67 years, is low compared with the state average, 75 years. The average in Shelby County, where Memphis sits, surrounded by wealthier White suburbs, is 79 years.
“Even when the windows are closed, I can still smell exhaust in my den,” said Kimberley Davis, a 46-year-old Internal Revenue Service employee who lives in the community of Whitehaven near I-55.
The diesel-spewing trucks will add to the more than 2,400 vehicles that stream by her south Memphis neighborhood on the freeway every day. Thousands more stream across Interstate 240, which is also nearby.
Down the road from her house, FedEx jets take off and land around-the-clock at the world’s busiest cargo airport. Truck depots, commercial rail yards and underground industrial storage facilities all are nearby.
“I was having issues with sinuses and with breathing, and I didn’t really understand why,” said Davis, who runs a pair of air purifiers every time she cracks open a window. “I just really believe that it has a lot to do with the heavy pollution in the area.”
Everyone agrees that the mountain of coal ash is a nightmare waiting to happen.
It piled up over five decades as workers burned 7,200 tons of coal per day to generate electricity that powered a region. The coal ash was stashed in giant pits that are now leaking and threatening to contaminate one of the most precious natural resources in the Deep South: the 55 trillion gallon Memphis Sand Aquifer, the underground source of the city’s drinking water.
Memphis is the only major city in the United States that draws all of its drinking water from the ground. A water quality test in 2017 confirmed the fears of environmentalists. It detected levels of arsenic 300 times higher than the legal limit in a shallow body of groundwater that sits above the deep main aquifer.
Although studies showed that the water is safe to drink, the TVA agreed to haul away and bury the coal ash at a cost of $300 million. The utility closed the Allen Fossil Plant and worked on alternative plans to get rid of the coal ash.
The agency held public meetings about the proposals it was considering and initiated an environmental analysis required under federal law. The most controversial option was trucking coal ash through a part of the city that was more than 80 percent Black.
As the TVA’s plan slowly unfolded, residents were involved in another fight against pollution. In 2019, two oil and gas companies — Valero Energy Corp. and Plains All-American Pipeline — announced plans to run a crude oil pipeline through the neighborhood.
The project would have gone through some people’s backyards, some said. But the pipeline company objected to that, saying 93 percent of properties the project would have crossed were vacant land and every resident with homes in the area had entered financial agreements to allow it.
Local activists who mobilized against it felt they were fighting a losing cause after a representative for the oil companies made a remark that angered all of south Memphis.
At a community meeting in early 2020, a land agent contracted by the companies explained why they selected their neighborhood: “We took, basically, a point of least resistance.” His remarks were recorded and published on a podcast, “Broken Ground.”
As residents reportedly stared at each other in disbelief, the land agent added: “We encountered [other] communities that were newly being built, and we rerouted around them.”
Valero Energy declined requests for comments and Plains All-American issued a brief statement. At the time, the companies claimed that the land agent had misspoken, saying that choosing “a point of least resistance” was never their intention.
But it was too late. The remarks strengthened community opposition. Seven months later, in October, at a second meeting with residents, a young activist stood and used the land agent’s words to vilify the project.
“The path of least resistance. That’s what they call Boxtown. That’s what they call Westwood. That’s what they’re calling Memphis,” Justin J. Pearson, 27, said, his voice booming across the room.
“We don’t have PhDs behind our names,” Pearson said, according to the podcast. “But don’t believe for a second we don’t know who we are. We care about the air we breathe. We care about the water we drink.”
He ended by repeating the same sentence five times: “We have to fight now!” And finally, “This cannot stand.”
Pearson co-founded Memphis Community Against the Pipeline with other neighborhood activists and ultimately became its voice. The activists galvanized citywide opposition to the project by showing that it was a potential threat to the sand aquifer and its prized drinking water.
After the companies dropped their plans, a photo of Pearson exulting covered the front page of a local newspaper.
The TVA’s announcement about the coal ash two weeks later also made the front page. It hit many residents like a blow to the gut.
“Everybody was pretty mad at the TVA” for introducing its plan and deflating residents who fought the pipeline, Pearson said.
The TVA emailed a statement to The Washington Post saying it held two public hearings in 2019 at a community center and library to discuss its plans. The statement said officials also met with leaders of the Sierra Club and a group called Protect Our Aquifer.
But the agency kept its final decision quiet, leaders of the environmental groups said. A public records request by the Southern Environmental Law Center in Tennessee showed that the TVA had made the decision six months earlier, in January of last year, but did not announce it until after the pipeline fight.
“It’s not the number of meetings but the quality of the engagement that matters,” said Amanda Garcia, the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Tennessee.
Angela Johnson, a south Memphis resident who watched the battle over the Byhalia Pipeline, said the idea of facing off against another rich and powerful adversary was staggering.
“Like, oh my God. Again? Like we just get through with this and here we go again,” Johnson said. “And then, once you find out how serious it is and who you’re up against, it really becomes emotionally draining.”
South Memphis is rich with Black history.
Many of the Black men who carried the famous sign “I Am A Man” during the final march by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. through downtown in 1968 came from there.
The roads from downtown into the heart of south Memphis led to Stax Records, the famous music label of hitmakers Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Al Green, the love song crooner turned preacher.
“We have a lot of special things that are, you know, exceptional to us as it relates to Black communities in the city,” said Pearl Walker, who lives in an aging red-brick house with a huge backyard where tall, heavy shade trees lean left and right.
The story of Black south Memphis starts with Boxtown, established by the formerly enslaved after emancipation. As with dozens of similar settlements, industrial pollution found Boxtown and Black residents.
The Allen Fossil Plant first operated by Memphis Gas and Light before the TVA took over in the 1960s saturated the area with pollution from its smokestacks but did not send power to the homes there.
City officials made promises to modernize Boxtown but did not deliver on them for decades. As Boxtown waited for a connection to the modern world, a story familiar to nearly every Black urban area in the country played out: White flight to the suburbs with the assistance of favorable federal government home mortgage loans.
As White residents moved out and Black people trickled into the homes they left, much of south Memphis was redlined, identified as undesirable because of its racial makeup and unworthy of housing loans.
Then came the freeways. Interstates 55 and 240 were built in the mid-century. The airport underwent a major expansion, as did the Memphis oil and gas refinery. FedEx, started in the early 1970s, transformed the airport, bringing rich tax revenue and jobs — and even more pollution.
According to the 2013 University of Memphis study, air pollution “concentrations in southwest Memphis were similar to or even higher than the 90th or 95th percentile” when compared with concentrations in other polluted cities such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
“Southwest Memphis is …, therefore, among the top air pollution locations nationwide, and its air pollution is even more pronounced given that ambient levels of air toxics have been decreasing nationally over the last two decades,” the study said.
Despite that, Davis saw a home in a vibrant Black community and grabbed it a year ago.
“I love this city. I love the people of this city, and I wanted to be one of its citizens,” Davis said.
But when her throat hurt and she started learning about pollution through activist groups, Davis figured that her health was far more important than history and the trappings of a middle-class district.
“There was something wrong that certain areas seemed to suffer from toxic overload or environmental injustice or high pollution,” she said.
The TVA says the 19-mile route from the power plant to the landfill passes 72 businesses, 39 houses and an apartment complex with 36 units, according to an environmental study.
“The route largely avoids residential areas,” using I-55 and a state road.
And the plan won the endorsement of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
After the TVA’s announcement, a top adviser at TDEC, Pat Flood, told residents that the agency was “in full agreement [with] the direction that this project is going.”
Flood called the plan “the right direction to go” and “the right thing for the citizens of the state of Tennessee.”
Critics strongly disagreed, saying the TVA not only made a decision that will threaten the health of the community but also failed to consult meaningfully with locals.
The environmental analysis is also deceptive, the Southern Environmental Law Center said, arguing that it ignores entire housing subdivisions that sit behind the road facing structures the TVA identified.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) approached the utility about finding an alternative route to a different landfill so that a single Black community is not affected for an entire decade. “Just to put it in southwest Memphis, I don’t know,” Cohen said. “That just puts more trouble on top of trouble.”
“There’s, you know, hundreds of folks that live just within this one stretch of the road,” Sarah Houston, director of Protect Our Aquifer, said as she trailed one of the trucks along its route. “You go one block off the street and you’re in neighborhoods.”
City council member Jeff Warren also believes the TVA’s analysis is flawed. He successfully pushed to approve a resolution calling on the TVA’s president and board to find a route that bypasses south Memphis, but the council cannot compel the agency to follow its recommendations.
Even the Biden administration, which is sympathetic to environmental justice communities and has the power to influence the TVA with appointments to its board, has failed to get the Senate to approve four nominees who could influence executive decisions.
But, if needed, the city has a powerful card to play, Warren said.
For the first time, Memphis Gas and Light will not have to rely on the TVA for the mix of power it provides the city. In anticipation of the end of its contract with the TVA, the utility requested bids to augment its energy supply and will discuss them at a Sept. 1 meeting. The city, one of its largest customers, could play a role in the decision.
“I’m just saying,” Warren said, “that I don’t think, politically, you’re going to make people your friend by not listening to us and not trying to help us out here.”
“TVA didn’t get the memo,” Pearson said, “that the Memphis that has been exploited by them for decades is not the one we are in now.”
And yet, as the community waits to see if it can get the TVA to change course, South Memphis appears to be losing leverage elsewhere.
In March, two Tennessee lawmakers introduced legislation that sought to ban municipalities from blocking oil and gas infrastructure.
Within three months, it had passed.
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