Toni Whitfield holds a sign opposing the pipeline during a December 2020 rally organized by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline at T.O. Fuller State Park. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

A lawyer for two Southwest Memphis landowners is challenging eminent domain lawsuits filed by Byhalia Pipeline against his clients, asserting in court filings that the building of an oil pipeline through residential properties does not serve residents and is a threat to the water supply.

“There is no public purpose here for the citizens of Memphis,” said attorney Scott Crosby. “It is crude oil being taken from a plant across people’s yards, across people’s homes, across people’s property they’ve had for generations into Mississippi and connecting with another part of their pipeline. At no time is the crude oil going to stop in Memphis (or) be used in Memphis.”

Crosby’s clients are among at least nine Southwest Memphis landowners who have lost or may lose some property rights through eminent domain. The governmental power is increasingly being used by large oil corporations to gain access to land. Crosby, an attorney with the Memphis law firm Burch, Porter & Johnson, expects to file on behalf of two additional property owners soon, he said.

The Byhalia Connection Pipeline is a joint venture of oil giants Valero Energy and Plains All American Pipeline. The company has been taking Shelby County landowners to court since mid-October to obtain easements on land in the path of its proposed pipeline. The company filed its latest case Jan. 20 against Rivergate Harbor Association.

The company unveiled plans in late 2019 to build a 45-mile stretch of the pipeline from Valero Memphis Refinery to a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The proposed route runs through the 38109 ZIP code in Memphis, including parts of the predominantly Black communities of Boxtown, Westwood and Whitehaven.

Boxtown and other Southwest community residents have rallied against the pipeline alongside activists and some elected officials, characterizing the project as environmental racism. Another rally will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mitchell High School located at 658 W. Mitchell Road.

Having free legal representation gives residents, who could not afford attorney fees, a fighting chance to hold on to their properties, said Justin J. Pearson, spokesperson for Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, the group that organized the largest rallies.

“It is powerful that this time, when (landowners) go up against a billion-dollar company, they won’t be going alone,” Pearson said.

Crosby client Scottie Fitzgerald, 68, said the free help is “a blessing God provided.” Byhalia Pipeline is seeking easement rights on her land across two adjacent plots that total about 2 acres along Weaver Road. Construction will cover nearly a third of the property. Fifteen percent of the land would permanently remain under the company’s control.

“My mother bought the property in a time when Black people, especially Black women, were not easily able to purchase property,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald’s mother left Memphis to work factory jobs in Toledo, Ohio, and sent money back to her father to purchase the land on her behalf, she said.

The case for another client, Clyde Robinson, is set for a hearing on Feb. 5  at 10 a.m. in Division 6 of Shelby County Circuit Court. Robinson owns an acre of land that backs up to railroad tracks near Fields and Outlet Roads. Attempts to reach Robinson for comment were not successful by publication time.

Crosby said he was approached about the cases by George Nolan, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. But he didn’t need to be convinced, he said. He is representing the landowners pro bono because he “felt it was the right thing to do.

“I don’t believe there’s any public purpose for the citizens of Memphis, for the pipeline to go across their property. … In addition, I was persuaded because of the threat to our water,” Crosby said. “The third reason I was convinced to work on this case was what I viewed (as) an attempt by a corporate entity of taking what has been called “the path of least resistance,” of putting their pipeline under and across property owned by primarily African American neighborhoods in South Memphis.”

A community hazard

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. 

The SELC sent a letter to Memphis Light Gas and Water Division officials last month asking the utility to join in efforts against the pipeline because it runs through a wellfield that supplies drinking water to the area.

In a statement today, an MLGW representative said: “MLGW is aware of the proposed pipeline and we are in the process of evaluating the situation and identifying concerns, if any, we may have regarding the safety of the drinking water provided by MLGW in the area. Our goal is to provide clean and safe drinking water to our customers now and in the future.”

Jeff Cosola, public affairs advisor for Plains All American, said in a statement that the company is doing its due diligence. “We’re committed to designing, constructing and operating the Byhalia Connection pipeline in a safe, reliable and responsible manner. We want our neighbors to know that we’re dedicated to pipeline safety and ensuring that our pipelines meet or exceed the applicable standards for pipeline construction and operation.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has not publicly commented on the proposed pipeline. His spokesperson has not acknowledged emails from MLK50 requesting comment for this story nor for a story last month.

Pearson named Strickland as one of many elected officials from whom he would like more support.

“We need more people advocating because we need action now,” Pearson said. “Not people who are just interested in learning more, we need people picking a side. It’s Memphis or the oil company. There is no in-between.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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