A federal judge in Memphis wants the Tennessee Valley Authority to fork over documents about the environmental impact — and potential hazards — of its long-term contract offer to supply Memphis with electricity.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker issued an order Monday that compelled TVA to hand over further documents about how it came up with the contract offer in front of Memphis — a contract that 140-plus other local power companies have already signed.
Parker's order is in response to legal filings from Protect Our Aquifer, a Memphis-based nonprofit, and two other environmental nonprofits. Those nonprofits have argued that TVA's long-term contracts aren't actually 20-year deals but never-ending contracts that violate two federal laws — the TVA Act, which governs TVA, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Parker has not ruled on those claims.
For the past four years, Memphis, Light, Gas and Water has considered leaving the TVA and purchasing electricity elsewhere. The city-owned utility purchases about 11% of TVA's electricity and represents about the same amount of revenue for TVA.
"The public needs to know about the environmental impacts associated with TVA's decision to enter into new power supply contracts because TVA's power supply operations have an incredibly big footprint on communities across Tennessee," Amanda Garcia, an Southern Environmental Law Center attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview Thursday.
TVA, in a statement, described Parker's order as a routine happening.
"The court ordered TVA to submit additional background information to complete the record. This is a normal part of the judicial process. This is not a ruling on the underlying merits of the case," TVA spokesman Buddy Eller said. "The TVA Board's decision to offer the Long-Term Agreement fully complied with TVA's legal obligations. And we are pleased that 146 of 153 local power companies have signed."
Garcia noted the environmental impacts of TVA's operations in Memphis — contractors are removing coal ash from the former Allen Fossil Plant site while, across the street, TVA uses hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year to operate the Allen Combined Cycle Plant.
"The challenge for our clients, in this case, is that this isn't a case where TVA did an environmental review, and we have information that we can evaluate and say, is this sufficient or not," Garcia said. "The challenge here is really that TVA made this decision to enter into more than 130 new power supply agreements without doing any sort of environmental review at all. And so the public has really been kept in the dark about the environmental implications."
The loss of Memphis would be a significant setback for TVA, one that it has long feared. As the largest local utility in TVA and because it has not yet accepted TVA's contract offer, Memphis proved the ideal forum for Protect Our Aquifer and other nonprofits to test their theory that the long-term deals TVA is offering are illegal.
The electricity bidding process that Memphis is going through offers what Garcia describes as a check on TVA's power over the local utilities it serves, a check on TVA not unlike the lawsuit she is mounting against the company.
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Memphis is currently reviewing the bids from about 20 bidders on its power supply, a process that Garcia argues the long-term contracts local utilities have signed with TVA don't offer them.
"MLGW's process is the kind of process that we think is important for all communities to have access to in TVA's territory," Garcia said. "It's an important check on TVA's very broad authority and footprint to have these limits in place on their power....so there's accountability of federal law; there's accountability at the local power company level...
MLGW is a great example of how things are supposed to work in terms of being able to evaluate other options occasionally for how you want your power to be supplied."
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.