A new group of activists has joined the fight against developers’ plans to build an oil pipeline through Boxtown and is calling on elected officials to offer more help in the effort.
The recently organized Memphis Community Against the Pipeline will hold a rally at 1 p.m. Saturday at T.O. Fuller State Park near Boxtown, a mostly Black community in Southwest Memphis. The event also will be live-streamed on Facebook.
Organizers aim to take the lead away from developers on the issue, to condemn the Byhalia Connection Pipeline plan as environmental racism and urge local officials to support the fight, said Justin Pearson and Kathy Robinson, the group’s founding members.
Rally on Saturday
Memphis Community Against the Pipeline will hold a rally at 1 p.m. Saturday at T.O. Fuller State Park near Boxtown.
The event will also be livestreamed on Facebook.
“Say something, let us know if you’re on our side or if you’re not, so we will know where we stand,” Robinson said about elected officials. “And if you do not support this, if you want the pipeline to come into the area, let us know, so we won’t vote for you next time.”
Pearson expects State Rep. London Lamar and longtime environmental justice organizer and former candidate for U.S. congress Marquita Bradshaw to attend the rally, he said. Memphis City Council members Patrice Robinson and Edmund Ford Sr. have committed to attend virtually, Pearson said. Bradshaw confirmed she would attend, while Lamar, Patrice Robinson and Ford had not responded to emailed requests for comment by publication time.
Also missing is a response from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Pearson said. In October, Strickland did not respond to questions about the proposed pipeline from MLK50 and Southerly, which co-published two prior stories on the project. Strickland also did not respond to three emails over three days from MLK50 for this story.
U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen said in October, “I don’t see any particular benefit to my constituents but do see some risks. I expect those reviewing plans will weigh these considerations seriously before reaching a decision.”
Cohen said then he would “closely monitor” the situation, but has not answered questions posed in three emails to his office since Tuesday, including whether he plans to take any actions concerning the development.
Pollution all around
The pipeline would run 45 miles, from the Valero refinery in Memphis to a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The project is owned by Byhalia Pipeline LLC and is a joint undertaking of Plains All American Pipeline and Valero. Along its stretch is a series of nearly all-Black neighborhoods including Westwood, Rolling Green Hill and Boxtown, which got its name from the homes built out of train boxcars by formerly enslaved residents.
Boxtown is already surrounded by polluting industries, including iron and steel mills, a chemical plant, Valero’s oil refinery and a coal ash pond full of carcinogens leftover from the Tennessee Valley Authority Allen Fossil Plant, which was shuttered in 2018. TVA’s own data shows that arsenic, a known carcinogen, was measured in one well at over 300 times the federal limit for drinking water.
Studies show hazardous industries are disproportionately located in communities of color. Black people, for instance, are 75% more likely to live near a polluting facility, according to a 2017 report by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force.
A study published by the journal JNCI Cancer Spectrum in October found that living in close proximity to an oil refinery is associated with an increased risk of bladder, lung, colon, and particularly, prostate and breast cancers.
Developers, however, have said they are following federal and state guidelines, and that the pipeline will strengthen the Mid-South economy. The project will support the creation of 500 direct and indirect jobs in the hospitality, retail and service industries, according to the company’s website.
Growing community resistance
Another community group, the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, has battled the proposed pipeline since learning about it earlier this year, though the company announced its plans in December 2019.
The company hosted a series of open house events in early 2020, but residents who attended — many of them senior citizens — complained that the maps the company shared were hard to read and company officials appeared primarily interested in negotiating easement deals with landowners. Byhalia Connection has since provided more detailed maps, which now list street names.
Saturday’s meeting will be different, said Pearson, 25, and not a company presentation. The goal is to stop the development by garnering political backing and pressuring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a key federal permit, he said.
The pipeline is one set of permits short of approval for construction. On Nov. 17, the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation issued a water-crossing permit for the portion of the pipeline slated to cut through Southwest Memphis. No equivalent permit is required in the state of Mississippi.
The final set of permits — known as Nationwide 12 permits — would need to come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A representative from the Army Corps’ Memphis office told MLK50 that the office expected a decision “fairly soon,” but said they were not able to provide a specific date.
Byhalia Connection officials did not respond to email requests for comment sent in November and December on the status of the final federal permits and when they plan to begin construction.
Pearson grew up in Westwood, and Saturday’s rally is his first attempt at community organizing, he said. The special assistant to the CEO of the Boston-based job training program Year Up, who is working from home in Memphis, learned about the pipeline in September after reading about it in a Mitchell High School alumni Facebook group. He decided to attend the next community meeting, which was scheduled for Oct. 17 at Fuller Park.
Kathy Robinson, who also grew up in the area, attended that meeting too, driving in from Nashville, where she lives now.
At the meeting, Katie Martin, communications director for Plains All American, apologized for one of the company’s land agents using “a poor choice of words” when discussing the pipeline at a February meeting with the Boxtown Neighborhood Association.
“The path of least resistance, that’s what they called Boxtown,” Pearson said in response to the company’s presentation.
It was then, Pearson said, he and five to seven other attendees who stayed in the park after the meeting knew they needed to mobilize against the pipeline.
“The Plains All American folks gave us the launching pad for this resistance,” Pearson said.
“I am where I am — and I never forget this — because of some ancestors who made ways for me,” Pearson said. “I think about my grandmothers who lived in 38109 pretty much their entire adult lives and are gone. They both, unfortunately, died of cancer. And I can’t shake the (thought of) how much of the disease that my grandmothers had, had to do with the toxins that were being burned into the air that they breathed.”
The new organization of young activists is working with the established Boxtown association to hand out flyers about the rally and spread the word through social media, Pearson said. Marcella Shepherd, a member of the Boxtown Neighborhood Association who helped plan the initial community meetings, did not respond to three calls and a text since Wednesday.
Other groups expected to be represented at Saturday’s rally include Protect Our Aquifer and the Acklena Lakeview Gardens CDC.
Samuel Hardaway, 70, lives in Boxtown and has been fighting the pipeline’s development from the beginning. He hopes Pearson’s involvement and his youth will amplify and bring awareness to the community’s plight.
“Hopefully, (the pipeline) will be put on hold if the word really gets out …,” Hardaway said.
“Since the meeting, everything I’ve been hearing has been word of mouth,” he said. “But if he (Pearson) gets out there and really pushes it, I’m so glad for him, I’m proud for him. We need young people because my age group is like the last of the last. After we’re gone, what’s going to happen?”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
Leanna First-Arai is a freelance journalist who is focused on environmental justice and movement building. Her work has appeared in Truthout, Sierra Magazine, and Yes! Magazine.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.