Justin J. Pearson,  spokesperson for Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, speaks to a crowd of supporters on Tuesday afternoon after a Memphis City Council committee meeting was postponed.

Update, March 2: A Memphis City Council committee Tuesday delayed consideration until next week of an ordinance and a resolution regarding the Byhalia Pipeline.

A Memphis City Council committee today deferred sending a resolution to the full council that would oppose the Byhalia Connection Pipeline.

This is the second time the Public Works, Solid Waste and General Services Committee has postponed the resolution against the proposed crude oil pipeline through Southwest Memphis. Council members and the council’s attorney discussed the city’s legal authority to challenge the pipeline before deferring it without objection.

The next committee meeting is scheduled for March 2.

“The jury is out on the question of what authority we have,” said Allan Wade, who provides legal counsel for the council.

In 2019, Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — revealed its plans for the 45-mile route between the Valero Memphis Refinery and 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.

A growing number of celebrities – including Danny Glover and Jane Fonda – have lent their support to the movement to stop the pipeline, which opponents worry could pollute the city’s water supply. At 5 p.m. Wednesday, state and local elected officials will hold a virtual town hall about the project. (Join here.)

Wade said Tuesday’s resolution was non-binding but recommended the committee hold it until he could have an attorney-client meeting with them and Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division representatives.

Wade also said he promised to sit down with attorneys representing the pipeline’s opposition, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, which is represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Byhalia Connection Pipeline

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“They never knew that Memphis would rise up against a billion-dollar company and say no oil in the soil,” Justin J. Pearson, MCAP’s spokesperson, told onlookers at the National Civil Rights Museum before the committee convened to discuss the issue.

About 40 people marched with MCAP from the museum to Memphis City Hall to encourage the council to approve the resolution. The group vowed to return at the committee’s next vote.

At the start of the committee meeting, councilman J.B. Smiley, committee chairman, tempered expectations.

“The Memphis City Council has heard your concerns, we hear you loud and clear,” Smiley said. “And we do not want you to believe that we’re turning deaf ear to the concerns of the people. But we need everyone to understand that this body, our authority, has limitations.”

The resolution asks Byhalia Pipeline to find a route for the pipeline outside the city. It also asks Memphis Light Gas and Water to oppose the pipeline and asks the utility provider to deny the company’s easement request.

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

In today’s meeting, Wade said MLGW has the primary responsibility for protecting the aquifer.

Wade said the council could pass the resolution without being committed to a course of action.

“It doesn’t have any power, but it does tell people where we are and what we’re thinking,” said Councilman Jeff Warren in today’s meeting.

At a virtual rally last week, Councilman Chase Carlisle said he is interested in giving the resolution “teeth.”

“I apologize that I wasn’t more engaged earlier but the noise and energy has really helped bring it to the council’s attention…” Carlisle said last week. “Certainly, I know the council wants to lend its support to the community but we also want to make sure that there’s some teeth to it and not just a ceremonial vote.”

Taking property to build the pipeline

Byhalia Pipeline has also brought eminent domain cases against nine landowners in Shelby County.

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.

Wade said he is hesitant to recommend passing an ordinance swiftly as to not interfere with the ongoing cases.

Pearson said he was disappointed by the committee’s decision and the council’s uncertainty of its authority.

“They have more power than they think they do,” Pearson said.

Federal or local control?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a key permit earlier this month for Byhalia Pipeline. The Nationwide Permit 12 allows the developers to cross multiple bodies of water rather than seek an individual permit for each. The permit, designed to expedite infrastructure construction, requires minimal environmental impact studies and doesn’t include public comment. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen argued to the Corps that the permit cuts the community out of the process.

In a letter to Cohen, Col. Zachary Miller, Memphis District Commander, said many of the public’s concerns were outside the scope of what the agency can consider when evaluating the permit. However, Miller added that the permit, “does not obviate the need to comply with all other federal, state and local requirements.”

Several local officials have been hesitant to take a stance on the pipeline, calling it a federal issue. It’s unclear what local approvals are needed for the project.

“There are certain things that we may or may not be able to do due to our limitations,” Smiley said in his preface. “Some of the issues directly land at the feet of not this body, but deal with the federal government and we do not have the power to overturn or tell the federal government what to do.”

In a letter sent Monday, Cohen asked President Joe Biden to have the Corps revoke the permit and require the company to seek a permit with more rigorous standards.

Pearson said earlier this month he was disappointed by the permit’s approval, but to him, Miller’s explanation proves the pipeline is a local issue — not federal.

“There is no more passing the buck to the federal government. There is no cavalry from the White House about to save us,” Pearson told the group outside of City Hall after learning of the committee’s decision.

But the delay will give MCAP more time to organize, he said.

“We’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to keep marching,” Pearson said. “We’ll be back here.”

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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