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File photo / Former Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis

Three years after closing its Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis, contractors for the Tennessee Valley Authority should start next month hauling away 3.5 million cubic yards of coal ash to clean up the riverfront site for a possible new Memphis inland port.

TVA President Jeff Lyash told a congressional committee considering the federal budget on Thursday that the federal utility expects to begin removing the potentially toxic coal residues by truck sometime in July.

"It is a top priority of ours to safely and effectively dispose of that coal ash by removing it and moving (the coal ash) to a licensed landfill and we're committed to mitigating groundwater contamination that may be there as a result of the coal ash," Lyash told a House subcommittee on water resources and the environment during a budget hearing Thursday. "Beginning in late July after we finish our permitting process with TDEC and EPA, we will begin moving that ash out of there by truck. We'll be transporting 120 trucks a day and we will be moving that out as quickly as we safely can do."

Lyash's comments came in response to questions by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, the Memphis Democrat who is on the House subcommittee and represents the Memphis residents around the abandoned coal plant. Cohen said cancer rates for neighborhoods near the Allen site and nearby oil pipeline are much higher than in other parts of Memphis.

"Can you help expedite the removal of that coal ash because it affects our Memphis aquafer and it affects the people in that neighborhood?" Cohen asked Lyash.

The TVA president pledged to move as quickly as possible to clean up the former coal plant, which Memphis Light Gas & Water (MLGW) originally built in 1959 and later leased and then ultimately sold to TVA. TVA's Allen Fossil Plant was located on 500 acres on McKellar Lake, five miles southwest of downtown Memphis and part of the site now houses one of TVA's combined-cycle natural gas plants.

When the TVA shut down its coal-burning Allen Fossil Plant in 2018, it left behind two storage ponds full of ash, which contain poisonous substances like arsenic and lead.

Lyash said TVA is spending billions of dollars to clean up and remediate former coal sites, including its Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee where a coal ash impoundment collapsed in 2008 and caused the worst environmental spill in TVA history.

Once fully reclaimed by 2030, the Allen coal plant site is being considered for a new Memphis port on the Mississippi River. For over two years, the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) in Memphis has worked with American Patriot Holdings in Miami to develop the Mississippi River as a port for shipping containers to be unloaded to serve industries in the Midsouth.

The port could spur billions of dollars of trade and development in and around Shelby County, Lyash said.

Last summer, Lyash offered TVA's help to Memphis to build an inland port on the former coal plant site as part of incentives and assistance that TVA estimates would generate $535 million of extra benefits for the Memphis area.

TVA is trying to keep MLGW as its biggest customer. The city-owned utility in Memphis is studying the option of giving a 5-year notice to TVA and replacing the federal utility with other wholesale power providers such as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (MISO) which some studies indicate could deliver cheaper power for Memphis residents and businesses.

In his congressional testimony, Lyash said TVA wholesale electric rates are lower today than they were a decade ago and, after paying down over $6 billion in debt and cutting annual operating costs by more than $800 million, TVA is positioned to maintain stable rates for another decade even as it continues to move to cleaner and greener generation of electricity.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340

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