Behind the Headlines – June 7, 2019

Behind the Headlines – June 7, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you,
thank you. – Who’s in charge of
the Memphis Aquifer? Tonight, on Behind
the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] – I’m Eric Barnes with
The Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by Ward Archer, founder
of Protect Our Aquifer. Thanks for being here. – You’re welcome. – Brian Waldron is a professor
the University of Memphis who’s in charge of CAESER
which we’ll talk more about but which studies the aquifer
and affects and so on to it. Scott Banbury is with
the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club. Thank you for being here. – Thank you. – And Bill Dries is reporter
with The Daily Memphian. So, we will start with
that very question I asked at the top and I’ll start with Brian. You’re the scientist
and the researcher here. You’ve been on the show
before and I appreciate you coming back. CAESER, which we’ll spell
out that acronym in a second, but, y’all study the
aquifer, what it is. Let’s talk about who
is in charge of that and the scale of the
aquifer is something that I think people
don’t always understand and we’ll put a
map up in a minute that kind of shows
the topography and shows how deep it is
and it crosses borders. People sometimes,
I think, naively think it’s a big well
right beneath downtown or right beneath Midtown
or something like that. So, what is the aquifer
and who is in charge of it? – The aquifer underlies
portions of eight states. So, it is a very large
regional aquifer system. And, it’s not an
underground lake, it’s not an underground river. It’s comprised of sand
like you would see at the Gulf of Mexico and the water fills the voids
in between the sand space. So, that’s the construct of it. As to who owns it, it’s
a very good question because it underlies
eight states, portion of eight states, it’s used by each one of
different municipalities or agriculture industry
in each of those states. So, that is kind of
the question at hand is how do we look
at this aquifer as a shared multi-state,
interstate resource? – And, Ward, you founded
Protect Our Aquifer in the last couple of years when the coal ash ponds
at the Allen Power Plant, so the TVA was
going to mothball, or did ultimately mothball
the coal fire power plant moving to a gas fire power plant and is now part of what
powers Memphis via TVA. Protect Our Aquifer
was founded why? – We were founded in 2016 essentially to help
improve the standing of the Sierra Club in
the contest with TVA which was gonna wind
up in federal court which it did. The Sierra Club is a
national organization and we formed up a local
group of ten people who were comfortable
being on a law suit and we raised a little
money and we helped out. Ultimately, the case was
dismissed from court. But we got lucky with science. TVA had to admit that
the contamination under the coal ash pond was
far worse than they thought and could be moving and it ultimately led
to TDEC asking TVA to do a pump test which
Dr. Waldron was involved in, which proved there
was connectivity between the upper and
the lower aquifer, which meant if
they ran the pumps, they were going to
contaminate the aquifer. – And we’ll bring up
a photo that shows part of the coal ash ponds
and it shows the new plant on the left, and the
old plant on the right. And that is just one or
two of the coal ash ponds. is that correct? It’s not the whole… – Right, what we’re
looking at there is the foreground is
the east coal ash pond which is the one that
was most recently active. There’s a west pond, on the
other side, which you don’t see which is not in service,
but it’s also included in the proposed clean up. – I’ll get you in here. Scott, coal ash is what? It’s the tailings or
it’s the by-product of burning the coal and and– – Combustion residuals. After you’ve burned the coal,
you’ve got ash left over. And, in more recent years, when we’ve been cleaning
up the pollution that used to go through
the smoke stacks, it is increasingly toxic because the things that we
want to keep out of the air are not scrubbed
out of the stacks and are part of that ash. So, it’s got lots
of arsenic in it. It’s got mercury in it, lead. Lead and arsenic and fluoride are the things that have
been detected leaking. Constituents of major concern leaking out of those ponds now. You mentioned the west
pond is on the other side of the coal plant that
we saw in the picture. It was closed and
covered with dirt some years ago. And, I think TVA just
planned on always just leaving it there. They’re now actually looking at removing it as well. There’s an environmental
impact statement being produced right now to support
TVA’s decision to remove all of the ash,
reinter it elsewhere. We don’t know where
that’ll be yet. It’ll likely be the
South Shelby landfill, and issues there because
we’re going to have a lot of trucks
rolling through town carrying this ash and in some communities,
that’s caused health problems or concerns for folks from
the fugative dust problems. The other thing that
we’re looking at right now is in preparation
for moving that ash, they’re gonna be
dewatering the pond. We just– – What is dewatering? – So, they’ve got to take all
the water out of that ash, I mean the surface water. But then there’s also, like, the space between the sands that Dr. Waldron was
just talking about. There’s pore waters, so there’s water between
the particles of ash. They need to get
all that water out. They’re intending to do that under an expired permit that
belonged to the coal plant. And there has been no
public notice on that and we’re looking at what the
effects of that dewatering is. Their plan seems to
indicate they’ll be pumping 10 million gallons a day into a small channel that
leads to the Mississippi River and anticipating that that
10 million gallons each day is going to contain as much
as 1,000 pounds of arsenic. There’s, unfortunately,
folks subsistence fishing out of that body of water and we’re very concerned
about temporary health impacts that might come with that. – Let me get Bill involved. – Brian, in 2018, the
Memphis City Council passed an increase in Memphis Light Gas
and Water’s water rate that specifically goes
to better map the aquifer and specifically where
the breeches are in it. And, it’s taken a little
while to coordinate this study but CAESER
is now moving ahead with trying to map
where things are in relation to our water supply. Correct? – Yes, so we have
started that process of mapping these naturally
occurring breeches in the protective clay
layer over our aquifer that allows this transfer,
water pour quality through. We have… being a university,
we’re all about students, so have five students
working on that now. We had a late start due
to some contractual issues but, in fall of 2019,
which is coming up, we’re bringing on
about 13 more projects looking specifically
in Shelby County at what’s going on
with he aquifer system. – And while there’s a lot of
knowledge around this table, it seems to me that
there is much more that we don’t know about the
aquifer that we need to know in order to make decisions
about what happens above ground. – Right, I mean, there’s like,
from what we’ve recognized, 15 possible breeches. Maybe five of them are known where we’ve actually
drilled a well through. But, the other ten are suspected and we think there
are more out there. So, there are a lot of unknowns. Even with the breeches
that we do know about, we don’t know how quickly
the water is getting in. We don’t know the
dynamics of that, so we’re trying to learn that. And, you’re right, there
is a lot of knowledge about that at the university
and at this table, but we’re trying to
feed that information out to the public and we do that
through public forums. We have another one
coming up, June 11th at the Hollywood
Community Center. – And you have graduate students who are coming from elsewhere, not just the
university of Memphis, to work on this. – They’re coming from
all around the world. We are getting the top students from around the
world to come here and work on this study. So, like I said, come fall of 2019, we’ll have over 18 students. Fall of 2020, we’ll
bring in ten more to hit this. So, we’re putting a lot of
emphasis on this system. – Ward and Scott, what
does this information mean in terms of talking
about proposals to put a dump somewhere? Proposals to build
and drill wells into the ground? What do groups like yours
do with that information that comes out of this? – Well, to your point, it’s
raised a lot of questions. We are… I believe we are the
largest city in the country to get all its water
from the ground. And, when you get
water from the ground you’ve gotta take
care what’s above it and we haven’t been doing
a very good job of that. So, anytime you see
something like a new proposal for a gravel mine or putting a landfill
in the flood plane of the Wolf River, where toxic thing is
going to be introduced into the water system, I think we need to be
real careful about that and step back. And the way it is now, there’s no one to stop
that from happening. – Let’s bring up a photo
of an existing gravel mine in north Shelby County just to give some
people a sense of… This is active or
no longer active? – This is a active gravel mine operated by Memphis
Stone and Gravel. And, you can see
how large it is. And they mine down to 50 feet
and take all the stuff out and pretty much
leave it like that. They’re supposed to fill
it back in with water, within ten years, I believe. But, in that area,
there’s a well data from nearby Millington that
shows that the clay layer, the confining layer of clay, begins at 40 feet. So, they could be
digging up part of that protective clay layer. And if you look at that picture, in the bottom right corner, we suspect that that
may be clay right there. So, what you’re doing is
you’re ripping off the earth, you’re letting other farm
chemical runoff get in there, machinery run off, whatever. It’s just not a good idea to let these things
just sit there, exposed. – Scott, you wade
pretty deep into, no pun intended there,
[group chuckles] you wade pretty deep into the
regulatory details of this. Does a better knowledge of
how this works and what– – Absolutely because anytime… First our city council is
looking at land use decisions relative to landfills
or gravel mining. When we have information
that we can bring to them that cautions their decisions,
of course it’s a good thing. It’s also led to a much
higher standard of scrutiny from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. They’re now recognizing that
when they look at permits in Shelby County, or in
surrounding counties, that it’s not the
same as other places in the state. They would have other
ground water issues. They would have issues
about karst and whatnot, but here in Memphis
they know, definitely that they need to start
really considering the geology of where the
land uses are occurring. And so, I think TVA
did us a big favor by raising this issue
to the level it has and it’s a good thing. – It was raised, and I
think it was the time you were on the show,
if I’m not mistaken. And it surprised a lot of people that basically you could, kinda,
sorta just go drill a well without anyone’s permission. I mean, back to that whole
question of who’s in charge, and whether you had industry
or you were a coal plant, or you wanted some
water for your house. I mean, it really kind of
sort of, there was no… There’s a group
that oversees that but there wasn’t a heck of
a digging into the question about whether the drilling
should be happening. – And now we’ve changed
our regulations. If you’re going to
dig a major well, it’s automatically
appealed before the board and has to be scrutinized
and receive input from CAESER and others before
they can issue. – How, though do you… So, let’s take the
other side of this. So, there’s somebody out there, or some people out
there listening saying that’s all well and good, I want my drinking water
to be healthy and so on. But, it takes
water for industry, it takes water for jobs, it takes water for some
amount of economic activity. So, how do you balance that? How do you say… Well, I mean do you just
shut down all these kind of potentially risky uses of water in any mind of
industry or business? – I think the solution
is making sure we’re getting the water
from a safe location. So, looking at where
the waters coming at even currently from
the natural gas plant, they’re buying it from MLGW, but it’s largely being sources
in the Davis Well Field, which is one of the
well fields that, Brian can tell us, has got
very young water in it. Maybe, it’s better to get that
water from a safer location or we’re still advancing
the idea of building a tertiary treatment plant on Frank Pigeon
Park that would… We’re discharging a lot of water into the river out of our
treatment plant each day. Clean that water up and
make that water available for the industries
that could use it. Is that part of your
mission with CAESER? And I should spell it out: Center for Applied Earth Science
and Engineering Research. I had to read that. Is is part of your research
to take into account the business needs, and what kind of economic
needs of this water and, you know, areas were wells
can be drilled and can’t be? Or is it yours to kind
of shut down the aquifer for all but the most
very essential purposes? – It’s kinda neither. – No, that’s fair, cause
I think people listening say, well, wait, they
just want to get rid of. – No, no, we’re not there
to shut anything down. And, we’re not there
to make an opinion, as a university, to
say you should do this or you should do
that, but not this. So, our purpose is to
create the information, the data, to give to
the advocacy groups, to give to the
elected officials, to give to the public, to give to the businesses, so that smarter decisions can
be made with that information. That, if a company
wants to come in and say we want to out in a well, we can get to the point
where we can look and see where they want to
put that well in to know what impact it’s
going to have on the aquifer, what impact it might have
on drawing in contaminants from another location due
to a breech in the clay. It’s that kind of knowledge
that we’re trying to create. – Back to the needs, and a kind of
economic need, Ward, is landfills. I mean cities, people,
business, everything, they produce waste and
they going into the dump or they go into a landfill. There’s a landfill, and we have some video, of
an area that was proposed in Nutbush, in north
Memphis, for a landfill that I think you all
were very concerned about. You can see it’s wetland
area, as the video rolls. And so that is
connected to the aquifer and what we’re talking about. But, if not there, where? I mean, there is
this need, right, for landfills? – I was told by the
former head of INSafe, I asked him, I said,
“Where’s a good place for a land
construction landfill?” And he said, “High and dry.” – Yeah. – So, I took that to heart and I think we need
to determine a place that is high and dry to have a construction landfill. – In this area, just to go to the video, this is low and wet, right? – Yes, and in addition, it provides flood relief
for the Wolf River and, you know, water’s going
up and now down these days. And, I think we need every
bit of that we can get. On another thing, what we
would like to see happen, in terms of who’s in
charge of the aquifer, Shelby County is 750
some-odd square miles, pretty big area. And, we would like to
see something akin to a Shelby County Ground
Water Authority established that would have the authority
to make the decisions that no, you can’t do this, you can’t put the landfill here. And we just don’t have
that in place now. And we need to.
– Would that take an act? We’ll go to Bill in a second. An act of the legislature
or the county commissioner, the city, I mean how would
that even be established? – I think we would
have to begin… We have begun talking
to the county. We’ve had good discussions with the Shelby County
Health Department. They are in charge of
doing well permitting now, so this could
broaden their scope if it was gonna be with
the Health Department. But, we would have to get
not only Shelby County, we’d have to get Memphis, we’d have to get all the
municipalities to agree. So, it’s a big job. But, we’re talking
about drinking water and I think that the
will of the people is we need to take
better care of it and there’s just no singular
entity involved in that. – You need to add
Fayette County to that. – Yes. – Well, wouldn’t you then
have to add Mississippi? I mean, ’cause again, we’re
talking about seven states, I think you told me. – Well, eventually,
’cause you know, the U.S. Supreme Court case, eventually whenever
that is solved, I think the outcome
is gonna be a compact, a multi-state compact. So, that will be the outcome. But locally, Fayette County
is our recharge zone too. That’s where rain
replenishes our ground water. So, they need to be a
party to what is going on on the land. Like, Ward said, our
water’s in the ground, but there’s this
over burden above it and we need to be protective
of the land above it, so. – Another point
that comes up there is that we could do all we wanted to do
here in Shelby County, but industries are
gonna wanna come here. Our water is great, it
saves them a lot of money to use our water because
they don’t have to treat it. I was just at St. Jude’s
doing an installation of art and I had to go up to the
roof to hang our scaffolds and went through
their filtering room. I was wearing a Protect
our Aquifer shirt and the guys working
in that room are like, “Thank you for
protecting the aquifer. “Aquifer saves us money.” But these industries will
go to a neighboring county, down to Mississippi or– – There’s a bottling
plan in Mississippi that was pulling water out because, you know, what? 500,000 bottles of year
or something like that. ‘Cause it’s the same water. I mean it’s not,
again, it doesn’t stop at the county border. Bill, let’s get Bill. – Well, we should also note
that the federal court case that Brian’s talking about
is a pretty long running set of litigation between
the State of Tennessee, and the State of
Mississippi over who has the rights
to access that water. Let’s go back to some
of the science on this because maybe there’s
the assumption that okay the clay layers there, there may be a few breeches, but this has nothing
to do with the rivers, the tributaries and
the Mississippi. There is a relationship. – There is a relationship, yeah. Even though there’s
that clay layer that protects our
primary drinking water, the Memphis Aquifer, up above that is
the shallow system and that is what
is more in direct contact with the rivers. And, those surface water bodies will give water to
the shallow system and then the shallow
system will give water to the Memphis Aquifer
through those breeches, So there is that connection that we need to be aware of. And part of our investigations
that we’re doing on this big study,
as you mentioned, is looking at that interaction. We’re actually teaming up with the Wolf River Conservancy to have the public
go out and help us look at ground water,
surface water interactions in the Wolf River. So, it’s an engagement between the university research
and the public citizens. ‘Cause we’re all invested
in the same system to go out and help
do this research. – And you’re looking for
volunteers and these are not very technical devices,
these are kind of buckets– – Yeah, it’s a bucket. [laughs]
– that have been adapted for this and need to be
placed in a lot of locations. – Right, right,
we just, you know, we’re going between Carver
Ellington on the Wolf River and Highway 51. It’s going to take us a week
to deploy these instruments. It is, just a bucket. But, getting that many
people out on the river to do it that quickly, every 300 feet, that’s a major undertaking so, we need people’s help. – Is there the consideration once a lot of this data is in, that a decision need to be made about whether or not we
go deeper than we go now for our water? – Yes, there’s another project that is part of that big study. A student is working
on determining thousands of possible scenarios from moving wells away from
breeches, to going deeper into the Memphis Aquifer itself, to going to lower aquifers, to putting in
different well fields, all the possible scenarios, even pumping on and off season to see what would be best
to protect the aquifer, keep it from being damaged
and increase the longevity of the MLGW well fields. So, that is a major undertaking, running thousands upon
thousands of scenarios. – You were going to
add something, Ward? – Two things. One, this is not commonly
known, I don’t think, but back to what you know,
you were saying about surface water interacting
with the lower aquifer and then the one below that, where we get our drinking water. There’s a fish advisory
on every single moving body of water in Shelby County. – That would be
in the Mississippi or that would be in the
Wolf River, that would be? – All of them. You can’t eat the fish. Or you should not eat the fish caught in any of the
moving bodies of water. – Because? – Because there’s chlordantoin, there’s mercury in some places, pesticides, PCBs, You know, it’s different
depending on which if you’re in Nonconnah
Creek or the Wolf River, but there’s one
on every single… Cypress Creek. And that’s, to me personally, I find that every
disturbing to think that every body of water
is contaminated. – Do you think there’s
a kind of complacency people have, maybe this is a
question for both of y’all, that people are like,
“Well yeah, duh. “Yeah, you shouldn’t eat that. “I mean yeah, it’s right
next to the highway.” And people just
sort of become numb to some of these things, kind of immune to the
notion that that’s shocking. – I think there was
a period of time in the 40s, 50s and 60s when
we did a lot of bad things. I remember, I drove
a dump truck once, and I drove one to the
Walnut grove landfill. Little did I know
30, 40 years later, I’d be talking about it.
[group laughs] That’s the landfill that’s
causing more problems. – So, it’s all your fault. – But the other thing is, this all is happening
with the national and global backdrop of a
shortage of fresh water. There’s now a Great
Lakes compact. If your county doesn’t touch one of the Great Lakes, you can’t take
water out of it now. – ‘Cause of the problems. I mean it seemed, I think to people who
lived up at the Great Lakes weren’t a limitless supply
of clean, fresh water. And from Detroit to, I mean
you go down the list of cities and communities are
having huge problems with that as a water source. – The High Plains
Aquifer, the Ogallala, is almost dry. – And that’s what? Nebraska? – Yeah, it’s what feeds
all our grain production in North America and it’s
gonna be a huge problem. They get really excited
every time I go up there wearing a Protect
Our Aquifer shirt. They think that I’m there
to protect their aquifer. You talk about complacency in regards to eating the fish. There’s been a lot of failures
in reaching out to people and helping them really
understand things. We have a huge subsistence
fishing community in Memphis and we need to be
looking after that community and helping them to
understand health risk. But the other complacency is, I think that because
we get our water from the aquifer and
everybody thought it was, you know, protected and
sealed by this clay, we’ve been pretty abusive
to our shallow ground water and to our streams because we didn’t have
to drink it ourselves. – We’re gonna leave it there. Thank you, thank you
all for being here, thank you, Bill, and thank you all
for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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