People setting up for a rally against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline.
Over 100 people attended a recent rally in-person or virtually against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline at Mitchell High School on Jan. 23. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Memphis City Councilman Jeff Warren plans to introduce a resolution next week that encourages Memphis Light Gas and Water Division to oppose the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project because of potential risks to the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which supplies water to the city.

“We have to protect that aquifer,” Warren said. “That’s a huge situation.”

Warren came to that conclusion after hearing landowners and activists speak Saturday at a rally held by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline regarding Byhalia Pipeline’s use of eminent domain to obtain easements on Southwest Memphis landowners’ property. He was among about 60 people who showed up for the rally at Mitchell High School, including Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), and another 55 who attended virtually.

Harris also was struck by what he heard. “I didn’t know some of the basics,” he said. “There were some basic points that stuck out to me today. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know a lot of the details.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris attended the rally. Lee said he wants to learn more about the impact of the project. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Harris said he planned to follow up with MCAP representatives and some residents to get a better understanding of the situation.

“Obviously, if I get involved, we’re going to try to stop the pipeline,” Harris said. “But that’s still in process. Environmental justice and environmental issues are a real top concern of mine.”

Support by Warren and Harris would be a boost for residents who have fought the pipeline for about a year. They fought first through the long-established Boxtown Neighborhood Association then MCAP, which was organized late last year by young activists. However, the residents’ efforts do not have the support of Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr., who represents the area.

Ford has not responded to residents’ requests to help fight the pipeline, said MCAP spokesperson Justin J. Pearson. He also has not responded to repeated requests for comments by phone and email from MLK50. However, Ford Jr. did reveal his stance in a Facebook post Thursday night.

“Pipeline News Flash: Well, it looks like that several of my constituents have decided to sign off in agreement for a pipeline to come into the District and have been compensated very well,” Ford said in the post. “Unfortunately, during this pandemic, people in the community have expressed that they need money to keep the lights on and feed their family. Now, some will argue that big business has come in to exploit our neighborhood for financial gain. However, when 93% of those property owners decided to take the money, the decision was made. They showed their complete and full support on this matter. Period.”

Byhalia Pipeline already owns at least 34 easements in Shelby County through agreements with landowners, property records show. Jeff Cosola, public affairs advisor for Plains All American Pipeline, said recently the company has 93% of the land rights the plan requires, including parcels in Mississippi.

Power plays

Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a joint venture of oil giants Valero Energy and Plains All American, has filed at least nine eminent domain lawsuits against Southwest Memphis landowners since October, according to Shelby County Circuit Court documents. The company also has filed at least 14 cases in DeSoto County, DeSoto County Circuit Court Clerk’s office records show.

Eminent domain is a governmental power to take land for public projects with just compensation. The power is increasingly being used by large oil corporations to gain access to land they can’t obtain through an agreement with the owners. The Trump administration made it easier for the companies by removing barriers and streamlining federal permit processes, though environmentalists warned that Black communities would bear a disproportionate amount of the harm.

Byhalia Pipeline 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. This includes parts of the predominantly Black communities of Boxtown, Westwood and Whitehaven.

Resident Kizzy Jones speaks about her family’s experience in South Memphis during a rally against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Residents have rallied against the pipeline alongside activists and some elected officials, characterizing the project as environmental racism.

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.

Some Southwest Memphis landowners have complained that they were offered meager amounts for easements that they feared would devalue their properties and cause health hazards should the underground pipeline ever break and the oil seep into land or water.

A Byhalia representative declined to comment for this story, and referred to previous statements by the company. Cosola said earlier this month, “We do not expect the pipeline to contribute to health issues. When the pipeline is in operation, the vast majority will be underground and will not have emissions.”

There have been problems with breaks in pipelines. A jury convicted Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, one of the firms behind the Byhalia Pipeline, in 2018 on criminal charges —  brought by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was California’s attorney general — for a 2015 oil spill. A corroded pipe poured as much as 3,400 barrels, by the company’s estimate, of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, which killed hundreds of birds and marine mammals.

Growing support

Warren doesn’t see an upside for taking chances with the water supply. He will encourage “MLGW not to give away water rights to allow that pipeline to be built over the aquifer,” he said. “There’s no eminent domain that I can see that has anything to do with Memphis because it’s not helping us.”

A MLGW representative said Thursday that the utility is still evaluating the pipeline plan. A statement issued earlier this month said they are “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.”

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

Support for MCAP’s mission is growing, Pearson said. An attorney, Scott Crosby of the Memphis law firm Burch, Porter and Johnson, has agreed to represent two landowners without charge.

“There is absolutely no public purpose to serve Memphis or Tennesseans for the passing of crude oil to go from one Valero plant to another Valero plant,” Crosby said at the rally on Saturday.

MCAP also is trying to draw support from the NAACP Memphis Branch. At a general membership meeting Thursday evening, MCAP organizers presented arguments against the pipeline and urged the NAACP to align with landowners. Deidre Malone, former president and current second vice chair of the NAACP, presented counter-arguments to what she characterized as misinformation about the health hazard claims and community opposition to the pipeline. Malone also is a public affairs advisor for Byhalia Pipeline. No action was taken.

Cohen was alerted to the issue of the pipeline last year. Earlier this month, he sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking agency officials not to “fast-track” the approval of a Nationwide 12 permit. The pipeline company needs the permit for construction and to consider environmental justice in their decision.

Others have joined the fight, too. The Southern Environmental Law Center, Protect Our Aquifer, the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, and MCAP sent a joint letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month asking that the pipeline’s Nationwide12 permit be denied. The letter charged that the pipeline’s route would cross an MLGW wellfield and could endanger the water supply.

Marie Odum attended the rally against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Her father is fighting in court to protect his property rights from developers. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“We have one of the best water sources in the Mid-South,” said Marie Odum, whose father is fighting Byhalia Pipeline’s eminent domain claim in court.

“We don’t boil it. We don’t have to do filters,’ she said at the rally. “We can drink straight from the faucet and be fine. We live off of it, our children, our animals (too), and we got to keep it. We got to keep good water here. I don’t want my grandson and his children to be exposed to cancer or any other health hazard.”

An earlier version of this story  misspelled the first name of Deidre Malone, former president and current second vice chair of the NAACP Memphis branch and also a public affairs advisor for Byhalia Pipeline. Due to an editing error, the story also incorrectly stated that U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen attended the Jan. 23 MCAP rally virtually. He attended in person. 

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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