Tennessee towns are looking for water solutions to accommodate the Ford plant | Daily News Byte


On a sunny afternoon in Mason, Tennessee, Tommy Tate dropped a few quarters off at a car wash to rinse the pollen off his old GMC truck. He doesn’t plan on becoming a Ford man anytime soon — even though the automaker is building a $5.6 billion plant nearby.

Tommy Tate washes his truck in the town of Mason, on the edge of the Blue Oval City.
Tommy Tate washes his truck in the town of Mason, on the edge of the Blue Oval City. (Blake Farmer/WPLN News)

“It’s too late. I have a new GMC at home,” he said.

But Tate is eager to see all the jobs Ford estimates it will create. It’s not just the 6,000 positions at the plant that makes the electric trucks; Mammoth manufacturers like Ford can create thousands of jobs with suppliers who can build nearby.

There are few places for young people to get good jobs when they graduate from high school, Tate said. “Mostly, they have to leave town to find a decent job with a decent wage.”

For decades, a major holdup in attracting heavy industry to this part of the South has been how to get rid of wastewater. It is difficult to deal with wastewater here because it is very flat. The swampy streams that separate one cotton field from another do not dilute much treated sewage. It took years for the state of Tennessee to resolve the wastewater problems at the megasite.

That costly problem was solved with the state government paying $52 million for a Mississippi River treatment plant and pipeline. But neighboring communities are now left to fend for themselves for access to sewage.

The pipeline is exclusively for the state-owned megasite, according to Bob Rolfe, the former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development — not the neighborhoods, commercial developments or associated industries that may be located nearby.

“There is no consideration to have locals tap into that pipeline, because that would take away the capacity that we have to reserve, not only for the current tenants that we are estimating but for the other tenants that we -recruit,” he said.

This plant will still give this region the economic boost it has been waiting for. But as a recent analysis from Pew Research found, mega-economic development projects often benefit wealthy corporations rather than the communities they build.

In this case, local officials in West Tennessee were trying to work together to build a tri-county wastewater system for new residents who moved to work at Ford. But finances are tight because the tax base is limited — even now.

“There has never been this size and scale of a private investment in this kind of a remote, rural area,” said Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman.

Environmental regulators are wary of issuing wastewater permits here. “But that’s the key part for how this growth is going to happen in what I call this blast zone around the Blue Oval City,” Huffman said.

One of the few sewer systems around, while small, is owned by Mason, a majority Black town of about 1,300 people that traces its history to before the Civil War. It became a sort of oasis for the enslaved people and is now home to some of their descendants.

“These African American leaders … have pretty much won the lottery,” said Van Turner, the president of the Memphis NAACP and the attorney representing Mason.

State officials attempted to seize the town and its sewer system when Ford began construction. Those officials asked the town’s residents to simply dissolve their charter. Local leaders refused and now hope to have more control over how this region evolves.

“In order to build in and around Mason, you have to get permission from the town to tap into its water/sewer system,” Turner said. “And that is for them to give or take as long as they are the leaders in the area.”

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