A woman stands in front of a large screen in an outdoor pavilion. She is pointing to a location on a map. A man wearing a face mask sits at a picnic table next to her.
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.

Federal regulators have approved a key permit needed by Byhalia Connection Pipeline to begin construction on a controversial oil pipeline through Southwest Memphis, according to a company spokesman.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved a Nationwide Permit 12 for the pipeline project, said Jeff Cosola, a public affairs advisor for Plains All American, which is building the Byhalia Connection Pipeline as a joint venture with Valero Energy. The permit gives the company a fast-track process that requires a single federal permit for water crossings rather than individual permits for each, and does not require companies to produce an environmental impact statement or notify the public at any point in the process. 

“Following more than 10,000 hours of environmental field study and analysis, the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project has obtained the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12, a federal permit only available for projects that will have minimal impacts on the environment,” Cosola said. “Obtaining the Nationwide Permit 12 is a key step in the project; we look forward to safely and responsibly building and operating a pipeline that will be a long-term benefit to the community.”

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Byhalia Pipeline has said it planned to begin construction early this year, and the project is expected to take about nine months. Cosola, however, said Wednesday that while the company has the permits it needs to begin construction, they haven’t determined when construction will start.

The company unveiled plans in late 2019 to build a 45-mile 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.

Community fights permit

A coalition of local residents, activists, environmentalists, attorneys and elected officials have rallied against the pipeline, calling it environmental racism and a potential long-term detriment to the community.

The Southern Environmental Law Center along with Protect Our Aquifer and the Tennessee Chapter of The Sierra Club sent a letter to the Corps in December asking the agency not to approve the permit because it would run above the Memphis Sand aquifer and through a wellfield owned by the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, posing a risk to the city’s water supply.

Several people stand and sit under a pavilion as they listen to a presentation about the Byhalia Pipeline.
Southwest Memphis residents listen to a presentation about the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project during a community meeting at T.O. Fuller Park. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

George Nolan, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a statement, called the Corps decision “deeply troubling.”

“It’s outrageous that no federal or state agency is taking responsibility for looking at the risks posed to Memphis’ drinking water source by the siting of this pipeline,” Nolan said. “We disagree with the Corps and think it’s terrible that the pipeline company chose to cut the public out of the process and fast track the permit instead of being the good community partner it claims to be.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen met with and sent a letter last month to Corps officials asking the agency not to fast-track approval of the permit and to consider environmental justice in their decision. Col. Zachary Miller, Memphis District commander, responded to Cohen Feb. 5 answering the congressman’s questions and explaining their decision to approve the permit.

In the letter, Miller said the proposed pipeline is within the environmental impact limits of the permit and that the agency doesn’t have the authority to stop the pipeline based on the pipeline’s operation and risks to the aquifer.

“USACE understands the concerns but lacks jurisdiction to require changes to the pipeline alignment or to regulate groundwater or discharges into groundwater,” Miller said.

Roger Allan, deputy chief of the regulatory division of the Corps, said the permit isn’t a wholesale approval of the project.

“If we verify a nationwide permit, it does not give them the authority to ignore any other state, local, regional laws or regulation. Our permits don’t convey property rights. … They would still be required to follow and obtain any other necessary permits and approvals and follow other laws and regulations.”

Justin J. Pearson, spokesperson for Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, said he isn’t discouraged by the Corps’ decision because it isn’t “gospel.” He said it proves that the pipeline is a city and county issue rather than a federal one, contrary to what some city and county officials have suggested.

“We always knew local government has a role to play here. Now, they have the most significant role — to choose the pipeline company or choose Memphians,” Pearson said.

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.

Monday, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners pushed back a decision to sell land to Byhalia Pipeline until mid-March. Meanwhile, the Memphis City Council Public Works, Solid Waste and General Services Committee will reconsider a resolution Feb. 16 to condemn the pipeline and urge MLGW not to give an easement to the company.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation granted Byhalia Pipeline a state-level water permit in November. Organizers from Memphis Community Against the Pipeline appealed the decision in December, however, TDEC has not yet taken action in response to the appeal.

This is a developing story and will be updated as new information becomes available.

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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