A Black man wearing a face mask holds a hand in the air after a march.
Batsell Booker, president of the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, prays outside of the Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building at the end of a march on Monday opposing the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners has paused action on resolutions that would have cleared the way for the controversial Byhalia Pipeline to purchase two tax-delinquent parcels along its proposed route through Southwest Memphis.

The resolutions, which were moved on Monday to the March 17 meeting, involve two lots on Weaver Road that are in the 38109 ZIP code and are included in a year-long moratorium on sales of tax-delinquent properties in South Memphis. One resolution, introduced by Commissioners Edmund Ford Jr. and Eddie Jones Jr., excludes 38109 from the moratorium; the other allows Byhalia Pipeline to purchase the two properties — about 2.35 acres — for about $11,350.

The properties were among 24 across the city scheduled for sale because of unpaid taxes; the other 22 were in ZIP codes not included in the moratorium. Commissioners approved the original moratorium in October for ZIP codes 38109, 38106 and 38126, with the intent of holding on to enough properties for a future development that could revitalize the area.

Follow this story

Keep up with the latest developments and find out how this story began. All of our coverage is here.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer moved to split the properties for sale to Byhalia from the others, and defer that decision and the resolution to remove 38109 from the moratorium to March 17. 

“The reason I want to defer is because we have an inbox full of messages from people in the community who are concerned about the sale of these properties and are concerned about (the amendment),” Sawyer said at the meeting. “I think that this gives an unfair advantage to one side for us to go through with selling this property, and we should wait until this goes through the legal process it’s currently going through before we make a vote.”

Justin J. Pearson, the spokesperson for MCAP, called the decision to defer “fantastic.”

“I’m very grateful to Commissioner Sawyer, and to all of the (commissioners) who agreed through unanimous consent that, ‘You know what? We need to look at these issues a little more critically,'” Pearson said.

Ford Jr., who represents the district and has been criticized by pipeline opponents, was disappointed by the delay.

“Now, I’m not saying that they should stop fighting the fight. But at the same time, watch who you pick the fight with because if you push me, I’m punching back.”

Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr.

“It is unfortunate that a group of individuals who need a civics lesson have hijacked an item that has really nothing to do with the pipeline,” Ford Jr. told his fellow commissioners. 

“Many of the things that they wanted resolved could have been resolved on the state or federal level,” Ford Jr. said regarding the permitting process needed to build the pipeline. “Now, I’m not saying that they should stop fighting the fight. But at the same time, watch who you pick the fight with because if you push me, I’m punching back.”

The delay may be a small setback for Byhalia Pipeline, a joint venture of Valero Energy and Plains All American Pipeline, which has said it planned to begin the nine months of construction early this year. A Byhalia representative declined to comment for this story on Monday.

A long exposure of traffic passing by the land near 5095 Weaver Road, a 1.35 acre parcel in Southwest Memphis that is tax-delinquent and part of a proposed Shelby County Commission resolution that allow its sale to the Byhalia Pipeline Connection project. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Project meets resistance

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 pipeline would run through predominantly Black communities in Memphis, including Westwood, Boxtown and Whitehaven.

Byhalia Pipeline already owns at least 34 easements in Shelby County through agreements with landowners, property records show, and they’ve filed eminent domain cases against nine Shelby County owners. Eminent domain is usually a government power to take land from people with just compensation, but only for projects that benefit the public. The Trump administration made it easier for the companies to use the power.

A coalition of residents, activists, elected officials, environmentalists and attorneys are fighting the pipeline, arguing it poses a risk to Memphis’ water supply and targets poor and Black Memphians with environmental racism. An attorney, Scott Crosby of the Memphis law firm Burch, Porter and Johnson, has agreed to represent two landowners in court without charge.

Pearson has led several rallies against the pipeline, including a rally Monday at the National Civil Rights Museum and a march to the Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building where the commission meeting was held. He has been a critic of Ford Jr., saying the commissioner has not responded to constituents who need his help in stopping the pipeline.

Justin Pearson, an organizer with Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, speaks at a press conference the group held on land near 5273 Weaver Road. Photo by Carrington J. Tatum for MLK50.

Ford Jr., however, said he felt under attack from people “who have agendas,” including Pearson and Kathy Robinson, a lead organizer of MCAP who is from Southwest Memphis but lives in Nashville. He also criticized U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January asking agency officials not to “fast-track” the approval of a Nationwide 12 permit for the project — a key permit needed for construction. Cohen also has attended rallies held by MCAP.

“If they wanted the permit from the federal government to be stopped, a lukewarm letter from Congressman Steve Cohen is not enough,” Ford Jr. said at the commission meeting. “But I know Mr. Pearson worked for him, so he’s not going to attack him.” 

Pearson, raised in Westwood, said he was an intern for Cohen off and on between 2011 and 2016.

Robinson said Ford Jr.’s criticism was out of discomfort brought on by MCAP’s momentum, and an attempt to sidestep the issue.

“I think that he’s just trying to be defensive because we are gaining traction and it’s becoming apparent that this community is gaining more confidence in fighting against this pipeline. So I feel that what we are doing is working, and he is trying to get away from the real issue,” Robinson said. 

“It doesn’t matter where I live. This fight is about Southwest Memphis, 38109, stopping the pipeline,” she said. “And if I lived in Russia, I would still be trying to prevent this pipeline from coming to 38109, Southwest Memphis.”

Kizzy Jones, another MCAP organizer, agreed with Ford Jr.’s charge that she and other organizers have an agenda. 

“Well, by golly, we do have an agenda. Our agenda is to be the voice of the community and it’s something that Edmund Ford Jr. should be. He should be the voice of the community. However, he’s with the billion-dollar company that’s trying to place this oil pipeline in this community…”

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

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.