Plains All American spokeswoman Katie Martin points to a map of the proposed route for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline during a community meeting in October 2020. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

A Memphis City Council committee on Tuesday tabled a resolution for two weeks that called for the council and Memphis Light Gas and Water Division to oppose a proposed oil pipeline through Southwest Memphis and over the city’s main water source.

The Public Works, Solid Waste and General Services Committee delayed considering the resolution after presentations by opposing sides — Plains All American Pipeline and Memphis Community Against the Pipeline — ran longer than scheduled. Councilman Edmund Ford Sr., a co-sponsor of the resolution who represents the affected district, suggested the delay. He emphasized that he has concerns about the possible impact of the pipeline on Memphis water. 

“I don’t want to be another Flint, Michigan,” said Ford Sr., referring to the crisis experienced by that city when lead was found in the drinking water. “Flint, Michigan, was Black people, my district is Black people. …They always want to put it on us, but you know we always know how to survive, though.”

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Justin J. Pearson, spokesperson for MCAP, appreciated Ford’s opposition to the pipeline and called it “a step.” Pearson previously criticized Ford for what he said was silence on the councilman’s part.

The Byhalia Connection Pipeline is a project of Byhalia Pipeline, a joint venture of oil giants Valero Energy and Plains All American. The company unveiled plans in late 2019 to route the pipeline through Southwest Memphis, including parts of the predominantly Black communities of Boxtown, Westwood and Whitehaven. The project would connect the Valero Memphis Refinery to a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi.

In its quest to gain easement access to properties, Byhalia Connection Pipeline 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 private property for public use with just compensation. The power, however, is increasingly being used by large oil corporations to gain access to land they can’t obtain through an agreement with the owners. 

The city council resolution condemns the proposed pipeline, asks the company to choose another route outside the city and urges MLGW to refuse Byhalia Pipeline rights to cross the aquifer. The measure cites potential risk to the city’s water supply and possible to harm communities that have already been made vulnerable by poverty and systemic racism.

It cites the fact that 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.

“(As) we discuss the future of this great place we call home, and work to champion efforts conducive to our collective success, let us do so in a manner that strives to protect and improve the quality of life and well-being of every person living within our municipal limits, regardless of their census tract, income-level, or platform,” the resolution says.

In the committee meeting, MLGW representatives said the utility doesn’t have the power to block the pipeline’s route and that Byhalia Pipeline has asked for an easement. However, Pearson and Councilman Jeff Warren, who introduced the resolution with Ford, said there is more that MLGW can do.

J.T. Young, president and CEO of MLGW, told the committee it was his first time hearing the resolution asking the utility to block the pipeline.

“We don’t own the Memphis Sands aquifer, so we don’t really have the ability to restrict what happens above the aquifer,” Young said.

MLGW’s vice president and general counsel, Cheryl Patterson, echoed Young and added that not granting the easement likely would not stop the project because “what we’ve been asked to grant is a very small piece and probably won’t have that much of an impact.”

The resolution intends to block even that small impact, Warren said.

“That’s what this resolution is asking them to do,” Warren told the committee. “To do what they can as all of us are trying to do to stop (the pipeline) from going, so it would be most appreciated if they could ask their board or at least encourage their board to not grant that easement.”

In presentations, Plains All American Public Affairs Advisor Deidre Malone and Communications Manager Katie Martin rejected arguments the pipeline will pose environmental and health risks. They contended the project would provide jobs and an overall investment of more than $14 million into the city’s economy.

“We are really trying hard to be a good partner in the community,” Martin said. “We understand that some businesses that have come before us have not. And we have tried to listen and are continuing to listen to learn how to be different and to learn how to be better, how to be transparent, how to be clear, and how to be available to answer any and every question and concern that people have.”

Pearson followed the company’s presentation with his own, highlighting landowners who are facing the company in court. He argued the company’s $1 million in donations to Mid-South nonprofits are a cover for environmental racism and that Southwest Memphians would bear “all the risk and none of the benefit.”

“They’re making poor Black folks in residential areas carry the barrels of oil on their backs. This is what injustice looks like,” Pearson said. “This is what inequality looks like. And this is an opportunity for this esteemed council to do something.”

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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