A man and woman place a map on an easel during a community meeting about the Byhalia pipeline.
Kimberly Owens-Pearson (left) and Batsell Booker, president of the Boxtown Neighborhood Association (right) position a map with the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline Route near the shelter at T.O. Fuller State Park where they were helping to organize a community meeting about the project. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

While snowstorms have frozen local government, opposition to a controversial pipeline is heating up with support from prominent national figures.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the National Poor People’s Campaign, and former Vice President Al Gore have added their voices to protests against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline — Gore through tweets and Barber and Theoharis with a letter sent Sunday to the Memphis City Council. Also, The Climate Reality Project, an international organization founded by Gore, is among 100 groups from around the country that signed another letter sent to the council Tuesday, urging them to oppose the pipeline.

“Building more fossil fuel pipelines is reckless and many proposed routes are racist,” Gore tweeted Saturday. “I stand with those opposing the Keystone, DAPL, MVP, Line 3, and Byhalia pipelines.

The new alliances come as the city council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners are considering resolutions regarding the pipeline, which is proposed to run through predominantly Black Memphis neighborhoods, including Boxtown, Whitehaven and Westwood.

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The city council is expected to consider a resolution Tuesday introduced by Councilmen Edmund Ford Sr. and Jeff Warren that condemns the project and asks the Memphis Light Gas and Water Division to also oppose it. 

Barber and Theoharis, in their letter on behalf of the anti-poverty and social justice organization, called the pipeline project a “textbook case of environmental racism, injustice, and environmental degradation.”

It went on to say, “This proposed crude oil pipeline funded by the fossil fuel corporations Valero Energy Corporation and Plains All American is burdening the people of this city and Mississippi for the profit motives of corporations. It is past time to put people over corporate gains and to hear the cries of the people in our cities. In Memphis, it seems the cry is clear: “No Oil in Our Soil.”

Justin Pearson, dressed in black, in front of a microphone.
Justin Pearson speaks during a rally against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline at Mitchell High School on Jan. 23. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Stakes are high

Justin J. Pearson, spokesperson for Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, said Gore’s tweets mean the stakes in Memphis’ pipeline fight are as high as any other.

“We are one of the biggest, most important pipeline fights happening in the country right now. When Vice President Gore put Byhalia next to (the Dakota Access Pipeline) or the (Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline), it is not accidental,” Pearson said. “It’s a recognition that what our city council chooses, which is choosing Memphis or choosing Byhalia, does have significant consequences for what we believe and the type of community we want to be.”

The council resolution says the pipeline project is a risk to the city’s water supply because it is routed above the Memphis Sand aquifer and through an MLGW wellfield.

Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — revealed its plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposal is a 45-mile pipeline between the Valero Memphis Refinery and the Valero Collierville Terminal Facility in Byhalia, Mississippi. 

The board of commissioners has deferred their decision to sell tax-delinquent land to Byhalia Pipeline until mid-March. The company has begun considering alternative routes in Shelby County in case the board declines their purchase, said Jeff Cosola, public affairs advisor for Plains All American Pipeline.

“It’s also worth noting that 62 of the 67 of the parcels the project crosses in Shelby County are vacant – which was intentional – in order (to) have minimal impact to residents,” Cosola said in a statement.

Pearson said the company’s consideration of new routes is further proof the commissioners’ decision is essential to whether the pipeline fails or succeeds. He also rejected Cosola’s claim that crossing vacant parcels offer minimal impact to residents.

“The consequences are too great for us to ignore,” Pearson said. The number of vacant lots doesn’t mean they lack value. Some folks wanted to build homes on those vacant lots. Underneath those vacant lots is where we get our drinking water from. They are continuing to look at things and say things that benefit their profit, revenue and bottom line without thinking at all about the consequences to the people in the community.”

MCAP, which first organized in October, has growing support outside of Memphis. Actors, including Megan Boone, and activists are posting on social media, sending letters and signing a petition, which has garnered more than 5,600 signatures since December.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued a state-level permit to the company in November. Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a key permit for the pipeline company.

In a letter to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Corps official said the agency doesn’t have the authority to consider risks to the aquifer when evaluating a permit and deferred the responsibility to the local government despite some elected officials’ suggesting the pipeline is a federal issue.

Although disappointed by the Corps decision, it reaffirmed MCAP organizers’ determination to persuade local authorities to act against the pipeline, they said.

“I think we are at a climactic moment of this phase of the movement to build more justice by stopping this pipeline,” Pearson said. “I think the fact that we know it’s up to local government to stop this pipeline is powerful for us.”

The company has also filed eminent domain cases against nine Memphis landowners.

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.

A winter storm canceled a Feb. 11 status call for the cases, which have been consolidated into Division 1 of Shelby County Circuit Court under Judge Felicia Corbin-Johnson.

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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