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Monday, March 15, 2010

NS terminal presents risks to Memphis aquifer

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Long touted as a "green" project that will reduce pollution, Norfolk Southern's proposed truck-to-rail terminal in western Fayette County could pose a threat to the source of Memphis' drinking water, The Commercial Appeal reported.

In a recent position paper, the Ground Water Institute at the University of Memphis called for an "intensive study" of the potential impacts that the company's $112-million Memphis Regional Intermodal Facility could have on the Memphis Sand aquifer. And after construction, an independent agency should extensively monitor both the quantity and quality of aquifer water, the institute said.

The concerns reflect the fact that the proposed site for the facility -- between Tenn. 57 and U.S. 72 in the Rossville area some five miles east of Collierville -- lies squarely within the broad "recharge" zone where rain water and surface runoff seep directly into the aquifer, said Brian Waldron, associate director of the institute.

He said chemical spills -- either large, single incidents or small, steady ones -- pose perhaps the greatest danger to the aquifer, which lies hundreds of feet below most of Memphis but has surface outcroppings in East Shelby County and Fayette County.

"The threats to water quantity probably are small," Waldron said. "The bigger threats are to quality."

The Memphis Sand, widely known for its purity, supplies about 150 million gallons of water daily to Memphis and smaller amounts to surrounding municipalities.

Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said she could not comment on the institute's statements until she studies them. However, "we will address all the concerns" about the project, Terpay said.

The institute's comments come as Norfolk Southern seeks a federal Clean Water Act permit for the terminal, where overhead cranes will transfer containers between trucks and trains.

Serving up to 327,000 truck trailers and containers yearly, the facility will be part of a $2.5-billion scheme of improvements across the Southeast that Norfolk Southern calls its Crescent Corridor initiative. The terminal is slated to open in early 2012.

While announcing the terminal project last summer, company CEO Wick Moorman emphasized the hundreds of "green jobs" the facility would create by taking long-haul trucks off the roads, saving an estimated 170 million gallons of fuel annually.

But the project has environmental impacts beyond its potential harm to the aquifer.

Norfolk Southern needs the Clean Water Act permit because the project would destroy 2.24 acres of wetlands and alter nearly 4,000 feet of a stream. Other impacts include the paving of 233 acres and installation of railroad tracks on 76 acres, according to the company's permit application.

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