The Memphis City Council unanimously approved a beefed-up resolution against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline on Tuesday evening, and took the first step in passing an ordinance that would hinder it. Meanwhile, council members braced for a possible legal fight with the company.
“The first time you try to stop (Plains All American Pipeline) from going forward with their project, if they don’t agree with our analysis, we’re going to be in litigation,” council attorney Allan Wade told the Public Works, Solid Waste and General Services Committee Tuesday morning. The full council attended the committee meeting, where members criticized the proposed pipeline and voted unanimously to add both measures to the council agenda.
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The revised resolution states the council’s opposition to the project but also requests several stipulations should the project proceed, including:
- The company provide the council monthly written reports on the project’s status
- An update on investments in the community or collaborations with community groups
- Two council representatives be added to the project’s community advisory panel
- The company create a financial savings plan to cover repair costs should the pipeline rupture or experience other failures.
- Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division meet periodically with Byhalia officials to monitor the project’s impact on MLGW resources.
The ordinance, which requires three readings in front of the council before approval, stipulates that any pipeline project would have to seek the body’s permission before crossing city property, including roads. Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. sponsored the substitute resolution. Councilmen Edmund Ford Sr. and Jeff Warren were sponsors of the original resolution and ordinance proposals, and Warren has said the ordinance is the best chance the city has at stopping the pipeline.
Councilwoman Rhonda Logan urged members to unify on the matter. “I want us to look at this as Memphis. Not just Black communities or Latino communities or white communities,” she said during the committee meeting. “This is Memphis, and we all have to stand up and fight for what’s right. If there’s a potential to affect lives right now or generations to come, we have to consider that.”
Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — revealed its plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposal is for a 49-mile route between the Valero Memphis Refinery and a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The route runs through several Black Southwest Memphis communities including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both approved environmental permits for the pipeline. Neither agency considered impacts to the aquifer when they evaluated the permits, representatives have said.
This leaves a gap in which no government agency is responsible for protecting the aquifer, said Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. The group held a press conference in front of City Hall before the committee meeting where they urged passage of the ordinance.
“This regulatory gap has real-world implications; because the people who are suffering — if and when something negative happens to the drinking water — will be those who are already most vulnerable in our communities,” Pearson said at the press conference.
Taking on giants
The ordinance isn’t limited to the Byhalia Connection Pipeline and would add council oversight of a gray area in city government, said George Nolan, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents MCAP.
“It would vest this particular committee with the power and the responsibility to make sure that if you’re going to build something in Memphis, it does not threaten the drinking water source of its citizens,” Nolan told the committee.
Councilman Chase Carlisle has spoken in favor of stopping the pipeline but told the committee he worries about the financial risks to the city of taking on the two wealthy corporations in court.
“The minute we try and enforce this, we’re going to be going head-to-head with a multibillion-dollar oil company that’s happy to litigate this stuff out,” Carlisle said. “I’m prepared to continue moving this thing through the process. I need to really engage and understand our risk-reward here.
“I don’t want that to come across as I’m not supportive. …,” he said. “We just have to make sure that we’re very diligent and understanding of what we’re obligating the city to.”
Logan wasn’t moved. Representatives for Byhalia Pipeline couldn’t provide her with studies on potential impacts to the aquifer, she said. That concern along with others means her top priority isn’t the financial risk.
“Social justice (and) environmental justice costs money. All justice costs money and has for the history of the United States. But are we willing to do what’s right and … find the money, or are we going to debate on whether or not it’s worth it? Our people and our water and our integrity as a governing body is at stake,” Logan told her colleagues. “We have this situation in front of us and we don’t have the luxury or the liberty not to act.”
Councilman Worth Morgan agreed with Logan. “Sometimes you just got to take on Goliath,” he said.
Waiting on city permits
Plains All American Pipeline representatives have argued the pipeline will be buried a safe depth above the aquifer and that they will monitor the pipeline 24/7 for spills.
In an open letter to Memphians from Roy Lamoreaux, vice president of Plains All American Pipeline, that was published on the company’s website Saturday, he said the company has the federal, state and local environmental permits they need to begin construction.
However, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, in his first public comments regarding the pipeline, told News Channel 3 the company has applied for city permits but he has placed them on hold while he reviews the situation. It’s unclear which city permits the pipeline still needs and Plains representatives didn’t clarify.
Strickland and his spokesperson did not respond to requests for clarification for this story and has not acknowledged several emails and phone messages from MLK50: Justice Through Journalism since December regarding the pipeline.
Ford asked that both items be sent to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to seek their involvement in assessing a potential fight with the company. A commission committee will meet Wednesday to consider whether to sell county-owned land to Byhalia Pipeline.
Ordinance opposing pipeline
Resolution opposing pipeline
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the sponsor of the substitute resolution opposing the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. sponsored the substitute resolution. The original resolution was sponsored by Councilmen Edmund Ford Sr. and Jeff Warren.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at email@example.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.