Clean water matters to new activist group formed to educate the public issues related to H2O

Since the turn of 2017, a group of Memphians have met weekly. The topic of conversation is one that is often taken for granted – water.

Beneath the city lies the Memphis Sand Aquifer. This hidden geological feature provides Memphis with some of the purest drinking water in the country. But what happens when the water travels from the ground and through the tap is a concern.

And it’s not just Memphis. In the wake of the Flint, Mich. water crisis many communities are inspecting their aging water infrastructure to prevent similar calamities from occurring.

Maria Wilder, a member of Clean Water Memphis, was drawn to the issue during a local Democratic party meeting. Among the speakers was Chet Kibble, a former employee of Memphis, Light Gas & Water and co-chair of Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative. One of the water quality-related topics discussed was lead poisoning.

“It was like a light bulb. When I moved here people kept telling me 'The water is really great'. It’s the aquifer so I didn’t question it. But when I heard Chet talk about the issue of lead contamination, I decided to drop all my other issues and concentrate on this one,” said Wilder.

So, a few of activists from Cooperative Memphis started talking about the issues around water and decided they needed to organize around this important issue.

Fellow member Laurel Cannito has opened her home to others who share a concern about the resource. Friday nights, they discuss potential threats to a safe, clean water supply for Memphis – like lead.

In February, all 50 states were sent a letter from the EPA. To reduce the risk of lead-contaminated drinking water, it suggested additional steps be taken by water systems. First among them was the removal of all lead pipes bringing water into houses. Per MLGW, as many as 30,000 houses in Memphis fall in this category.

“The water coming out of the aquifer is great. The problem comes in getting it to the houses. Lead pipes were used up until 1978. In Europe, they outlawed lead pipes back in the early 1900s. MLGW has promised to replace them all within 10 years,” said Hunt Herion, board member for Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative.

Lead, of course, is a highly toxic metal. It’s a known carcinogen. It’s also known to adversely affect mental health. Interestingly, researchers have noted a drop in the overall crime rate that seems to have coincided with the banning of lead in products like gasoline and paint.

“Lead has been linked to all types of mental disorders as well as physical. It affects high brain functions," said Herion. "The kind of discretion that tells you not to shoot your friend in the face. We’ve found some of the most violent places in the country test for some of the highest levels of lead contamination."

While circulating information, members of the Lead Safe Collaborative were approached by their Clean Water Memphis counterpart. They were soon invited to a Friday night Clean Water meeting.

“While our (Lead Safe Collaborative ) focus is on lead in water, CWM is about all issues related to the Memphis water supply: lead and fluoride, the pipeline and aquifer protection. I now meet with the CWM people regularly,” said Herion.

CWM also joined with Safe Lead Collaborative at a city council meeting on July 11 to address fluoride and trying to get it out of the water supply.

Fluoride has been repeatedly found to leach lead from water pipes and increase the levels of lead contamination.

CWM members have resolved a prime course of action is to educate the public around water issues.

A quick look at the TVA’s under-the-radar plan for the shallow aquifer highlights a lack of public information CWM is hoping to combat.

To cool the Allen Plant, the energy provider will drill wells 650 feet deep and pump 3.5 million gallons of water from the Memphis Sand aquifer per day. In terms of usage, it’s not an issue. MLGW customers guzzle 225 million gallons per day.

The fear is, while pumping, toxins from a shallower aquifer will contaminate the Sand aquifer.

Recently, samples taken from groundwater near the natural gas-generated plant stoked that fear.  They showed high levels of lead and arsenic.  One monitoring well had concentrations of arsenic over 300 times the federal drinking water standard.

Alarmed by the numbers, MLGW took samples from ten wells at the Davis Treatment facility near the plant. Testing was done at an independent lab. The results came back below detectable limits.

However, State Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, penned a letter to David McCray, chairman of the Shelby Co. Ground Water Quality Control Board, calling for the permits for the cooling wells to be suspended pending a full investigation.

Others, like Wilder, think it’s just a bad idea in general. A game of Russian roulette with a vital resource. A loser's game, in the long run.

“Why do they have to take clean water away from us?” she opined.

On July 26, the Environmental Working Group released a report identifying contaminants in municipal drinking water across the country. In Shelby County, tap water met the state and federal standards but also had one or more contaminants in levels above guidelines scientists and health professionals say could pose health risks, according to the report.

Another infrastructure project the activist group finds troubling is the Diamond Pipeline. Starting in Cushing, Okla., the 440-mile pipeline runs over 11 drinking water sources, the Sand aquifer is one, before ending in Memphis.

“It seems like industry has decided that these pipelines are the way to go even though they keep spilling. They break. We are going to continue to see them break. The ground shifts, pipes get old and they just break,” said Herion.

In use for decades, the Diamond Pipeline was originally used to convey natural gas. It will be converted to a crude oil pipeline and link up with the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. With its endgame at the Gulf of Mexico, the Dakota been grabbing headlines for years.

It has also galvanized opposition along its route. It has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists. It has also become a touchstone for indigenous people living in its path.

This past March, CWM helped support the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s prayer march through the Downtown streets. It was one of many examples of civil disobedience during an extended standoff.

Moving forward, CWM will continue to develop an infrastructure for education and action by working with other local water groups. And while weekly meetings were needed to kick things off, the group will move to meeting on the first Friday of every month.

“I believe this is an issue where white, black, Hispanic and indigenous people could come together and the people who come to the CWM meetings care about the water. No arguments or disagreements arise. Just a clear focus on the issues with our water,” said Wilder.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.