A sign opposing the Byhalia Connection Pipeline is held up during a rally organized by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline at T.O. Fuller State Park on December 12, where activists called on public support from elected officials. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

An environmental law firm that has joined an escalating community fight against a proposed oil pipeline through Southwest Memphis is challenging the issuance of a key permit for the development, claiming it would cross a water wellfield, violating the permit’s guidelines.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, along with Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Protect Our Aquifer and the Tennessee Chapter of The Sierra Club, sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday asking that the Nationwide Permit 12 be denied. The letter charges that the pipeline’s route would cross a Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division wellfield and could endanger the predominantly Black areas’ water supply. The permit is a final step for the pipeline company to begin construction.

“If there was an earthquake or if the pipeline corroded or there’s some sort of human error or catastrophe, and there was an oil spill, it would create a grave risk that crude oil would pollute the drinking water source for Memphis,” said George Nolan, senior attorney for the law center. “So the stakes are very high.”

Roger Allan, Deputy Chief of the regulatory division of the Corps, said Monday the permit is still being reviewed and that he can’t give a timeline for the decision.

A map provided by the Southern Environmental Law Center shows the Byhalia Connection Pipeline route through South Memphis, an area already surrounded by industrial development.

Meanwhile, the community group MCAP has filed an appeal of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s approval of the Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit. That permit, approved Nov. 18,  allows the company to construct in and around state waters.

The project, announced in December 2019, is owned by Byhalia Pipeline LLC and is a joint undertaking of Plains All American Pipeline and Valero. The pipeline would run 45 miles, from the Valero refinery in Memphis to a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. It would cut through South Memphis, including parts of Boxtown, Westwood and Whitehaven, on its way to Mississippi.

Boxtown is in a census tract where nearly half the households have income below $25,000 a year. It is surrounded by polluting industries, including Valero’s oil refinery and a coal ash pond full of carcinogens leftover from the now closed Tennessee Valley Authority Allen Fossil Plant. TVA’ data shows that arsenic, a known carcinogen, was measured in one well at over 300 times the federal limit for drinking water.

Boxtown and other Southwest community residents have rallied against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline alongside activists and some elected officials, characterizing the project as environmental racism.

Now, with legal support and a coalition behind them, residents and activists hope to stop construction by reversing approval on the state permit and blocking the federal one.

The Nationwide 12 Permit allows companies to use a single federal permit for crossing bodies of water, rather than seek permits for each one. The permit also doesn’t require an environmental impact statement or public notification at any point in the process, but it “prohibits activities in proximity to public water supply intakes,” Nolan said.

“And this project violates that condition because it goes through a wellfield that MLGW uses to pump drinking water and supply to many neighborhoods in the area.”

An MLGW representative declined to comment for this story on Monday. 

“We hope that MLGW would weigh in on this, given that they’re the biggest user of the aquifer, and it’s their wellfield that is being crossed by this pipeline,” Nolan said.

“Putting a high pressure oil pipeline across a drinking water wellfield and also across the Memphis sand aquifer in an earthquake zone is dangerous,” he said.

People who live near oil spills have higher incidences of cancers, lung diseases and other ailments, according to Environmental Pollution Centers, a website that aims to raise awareness on environmental problems.

Plains All American has spilled oil before. The company was convicted in 2018, Reuters reported, on criminal charges in California, where a pipeline ruptured in 2015 and  spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, killing hundreds of sea birds and marine animals. The company, which estimates it spilled about 3,400 barrels though other estimates have been as high as 140,000, settled its civil case with the Department of Justice in March, agreeing to pay $60.6 million.

The newly-formed MCAP and one of its founding members, Justin Pearson, organized the largest and most recent rally Dec. 12 against the pipeline where they called on more public support from elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.

Cohen met with the Corps on Thursday to gather information and express concern regarding the project, he said in a statement.

“I expressed my concern for the safety of the neighborhoods the pipeline would pass through and for the integrity of the critical aquifer that supplies our community’s drinking water. I asked several questions, including those posed by the MCAP community group. I will continue to express these concerns and urge the Corps to take them into consideration when making its final decision.”

A map provided by the Southern Environmental Law Center shows a zoomed in look at the pipeline’s route through an MLGW wellfield. The center warns that the pipeline could threaten the local aquifer.

The support of large environmental organizations is “energizing,” Pearson said, and demonstrates the momentum the community is gaining.

“(Plains All American) knew that these communities would not likely have access to social, political and economic power to resist this pipeline,” Pearson said. “But they didn’t account for the goodness of people, like attorneys at the SELC, volunteers at MCAP, activists at Protect Our Aquifer and Sierra Club — all saying, ‘You know what? We can do something and we have to do something in order to protect our resources and our people’.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.