Fighting the Power 

Rural Shelby Countians are waging a battle against a proposed Enron power plant.

Just a 45-minute drive from Midtown, northeast Shelby County is remarkably rural. Shady two-lane roads split forested tracts and farms. Houses sit on large multi-acre plots with horses and barns. Locals stop their cars in the middle of the street to give directions. But change may be in the air. Literally.

Three thousand residents have signed a petition against two new power plants planned for their area. Is it a case of NIMBY (not in my backyard) activism, or, as they claim, a bad deal for everyone in Shelby County?

Gathered around Tammy Fleskes' kitchen table, eating pizza, six of the activists talk about the proliferation of merchant power plants in West Tennessee and the one planned for 600 yards from Sleskes' property line.

A subsidiary of bankrupt energy giant Enron purchased the land for the plant, and environmental permits were recently cleared, they say. Now their only chance to stop the plant is to convince the Shelby County Commission not to change their zoning classification from rural/residential to industrial.

"Memphis tries to promote itself with its high quality of life and its ability to attract quality industries, but in this case, we get all the pollution in exchange for five or six [power plant] jobs," says Mark Lawrence, a member of Citizens for Responsible Development. "And the industries that do benefit us, like Dupont and the Allen Steam Plant, might have to scale back or install millions of dollars worth of pollution controls because of this new plant." (This is because only a certain level of total pollution in an area is allowed by law.)

Lawrence adds that since power from the proposed plant will be sold on the wholesale market, it will not be taxed in Shelby County. Factor in the added noise and air pollution, opponents say, and the new plant is a bad deal for their community and the county.

Some published reports have the plant scheduled to begin construction in May 2004, but plans are on hold until Enron's financial problems can be worked out. Planned for a 100-acre plot now occupied by cornfields, forests, and a lake, the plant is estimated to cost over $100 million and produce 678 megawatts of power.

Lawrence says changing their area to industrial zoning would mean it would be almost impossible to sell their homes (unless it's to an industrial venture), and in the case of storm or fire damage, they would not be allowed to rebuild. The Arlington area is the last area available for residential development in Shelby County, he contends. Activists fear that once an industrial plant is built, the whole area will soon become industrial because no one wants to live near a polluting industry.

Water from the Loosahatchie River and aquifer sources, access to Tennessee Valley Authority power lines, a natural-gas pipeline, and cheap land make the area a prime target for industries, but none of the residents wants them, Sleskes says. Three thousand people more than the population of Arlington have signed a petition opposing the power plant, a testament, activists say, to the countywide appeal this issue has raised.

"Pollution doesn't stop at the county line," says Fleskes, "so this should be an issue for everyone in this area."

Just five miles away from the proposed Enron plant site, Memphis Light, Gas and Water is planning another gas-fired power plant. And Shelby County is not alone in the push to build new power plants. Five were planned for nearby Haywood County until the state ordered a moratorium on new plants until the impact could be studied. (The Enron plant received its go-ahead before the moratorium was issued.)

The key issue that brought about the moratorium was the plants' effect on the water supply, says Vaughn Cassidy, environmental coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Though merchant plants typically only run during peak periods of energy consumption, generally in the hottest summer months, they can use up to 10 million gallons of water per day, Cassidy says.

"Any [project] disturbing five acres or more has to have a plan for storm-water runoff [how rainwater is discharged into streams], but the only groundwater regulation is to see if the wells are dug right," Cassidy says. "At present, there are no limits on how much water you can draw."

The proposed plants need huge amounts of water for cooling, although they would burn natural gas, a cleaner fuel than the coal burned at the TVA's Allen plant. Allen produces 19,000 tons of both sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide per year, while the new Enron plant (according to the company's air-quality permit) would produce only 45.6 tons of sulfur dioxide and 248 tons of carbon monoxide.

Will Callaway, executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council, says the federal Environmental Protection Agency will soon demand that local governments adopt a tougher standard for ozone. Adding new sources of pollution is a step in the wrong direction, he says. County health officials counter that the new plant would be allowed even under the new standards.

But opponents of the plant point out that Shelby County is already ranked in the top 20 nationwide for polluted air. They claim local air is actually even worse because Shelby County has only two air-quality monitoring stations, compared to over a dozen in Nashville.

The Citizens for Responsible Development are committed and organized. They are fighting not just a power plant but for their rural way of life. They also know they are fighting a giant company with experience in finding ways to get their plants built despite local opposition. Enron hasn't yet attempted to change the zoning, but the residents know it's coming.

Frustrated by the fact that she couldn't sign the "no new power plants" petition, Fleskes' 14-year-old daughter started her own petition for children in the area. It doesn't count, at least not officially, but she wanted the county commission to know that kids also care about a clean environment.

"The power's not for us, only the pollution," Fleskes says. "How can this be a good deal?"

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