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To make the most of a new Ford electric truck plant, Tennessee neighbors need sewer help

Blake Farmer Dec 21, 2022
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The town of Mason has its own utility system including water and sewer. Utilities have been the most difficult hurdle to overcome in developing the West Tennessee megasite. Blake Farmer/WPLN News

To make the most of a new Ford electric truck plant, Tennessee neighbors need sewer help

Blake Farmer Dec 21, 2022
Heard on:
The town of Mason has its own utility system including water and sewer. Utilities have been the most difficult hurdle to overcome in developing the West Tennessee megasite. Blake Farmer/WPLN News
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On a sunny afternoon in Mason, Tennessee, Tommy Tate drops a few quarters in at a car wash to rinse the pollen off his old GMC truck. He’s not planning to become 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 fringe of what will be known as Blue Oval City.
Tommy Tate washes his truck in the town of Mason, on the fringe of what will be known as Blue Oval City. (Blake Farmer/WPLN News)

“Too late. I’ve got 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 in the plant building electric trucks; mammoth manufacturers like Ford can spawn thousands of jobs with suppliers who may build nearby.

There have been few places for young people to get good jobs once they graduate high school, Tate said. “Mostly, they have to leave town in order to find a decent job making decent wages.”

For decades, one big holdup in attracting heavy industry to this part of the South has been how to get rid of wastewater. It’s hard to deal with wastewater here because it’s so flat. The swampy streams that separate one cotton field from another can’t dilute much treated sewage. It took years for the state of Tennessee to work out its wastewater problems at the megasite.

That costly problem has been solved with the state government paying $52 million for a treatment plant and pipeline to the Mississippi River. But neighboring communities are now left with their own scramble for sewage access.

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 affiliated industry that might locate nearby.

“There was no consideration to have the locals tap into that pipeline, because that would have taken up capacity that we need to reserve, not only for the tenants today that we are estimating but for other tenants we’re recruiting,” he said.

This plant will still give this region the economic boost it’s been waiting for. But as a recent analysis from Pew Research found, these mega-economic development projects often benefit wealthy corporations more than the communities they’re building in. 

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

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

Environmental regulators are careful about issuing wastewater permits here. “But that’s the key piece for how this growth is going to occur in what I call this blast zone around 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 back to before the Civil War. It became an oasis of sorts for people who had been enslaved and is now home to some of their descendants. 

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

State officials attempted to take over the town and its sewer system when Ford began building. Those officials asked the town’s residents to just dissolve their charter. Local leaders refused and now hope to be more in control of how this region transforms. 

“In order to build in Mason and around Mason, you have to ask the town’s permission to tap into its water/sewer system,” Turner said. “And that’s for them to grant or deny as long as they’re the leaders in place.”

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