Clyde Robinson (second from right) walks with his grandchildren on his land on Sunday afternoon. Robinson is one of the landowners in southwest Memphis that is being sued by the Byhalia Connection Pipeline for property rights. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Memphis Community Against the Pipeline can join two landowners in eminent domain lawsuits brought by Byhalia Pipeline, a Shelby County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday.

This will allow MCAP to argue on behalf of residents in future hearings on the company’s attempt to take control of part of the landowners’ property.

“It’s important that members of the community have a voice in this issue,” Judge Felicia Corbin-Johnson told the court. 

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.

Byhalia Pipeline

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The pipeline company has filed eminent domain cases against 10 landowners in Shelby County who would not agree to sell easements on their land to the project. The company settled half of the cases outside of court, leaving two business landowners and three individual owners still facing lawsuits.

An attorney with the Memphis law firm, Burch, Porter and Johnson is representing two of the landowners, Clyde Robinson and Scottie Fitzgerald, for free. Some landowners said they could not afford to fight the company in court alone.

Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of MCAP, said the court’s decision is good news and means the community will have a voice in whether Byhalia Pipeline should be allowed to take land for easements for its project.

“No one else in these court cases are speaking or bringing forward the arguments of the broader community of Memphis and Shelby County,” Pearson said. “The only group that’s doing that right now is MCAP. And the people deserve to have a voice in these cases supporting Scottie Fitzgerald and supporting Clyde Robinson.”

In court today, attorney Tommy Peebles of Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis argued that pipeline projects often don’t have the negative impact opponents fear. As proof, he pointed to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System built in the 1970s. 

“There was considerable concern by citizens up there about the caribou herds,” Peebles said. “The citizens there were worried that the caribou herds that would migrate through the area might be damaged and hurt.” 

“That pipeline was built,” Peebles said. “As a matter of fact, that caribou herd that they were worried about had 5,000 caribou in it before the project was built and it now has 30,000 caribou in it.”

“But the point is that… there’s a big difference between landowners who are in the actual path of a public project and simply people who are just against the project for general reasons.”

Pearson bristled at what he considered a comparison between animals in Alaska and people in Southwest Memphis, calling Peebles’ remarks “belittling and degrading.”

“Today with the presidents and vice presidents of neighborhood associations of Southwest Memphis on the phone, we heard (Byhalia Pipeline) equate their lives, their livelihoods, their homes, their histories to animals in Alaska,” Pearson said. 

“It’s appalling, and it is them truth-telling. They don’t view us any differently than some animals in other parts of the country.”

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management shows that caribou still avoid oil infrastructure in Alaska decades after it’s been built and emphasized the need to minimize infrastructure in “important seasonal habitats.”

Peebles did not immediately respond to a voicemail regarding the ruling and his comments.

Cody McGregor, a representative for Plains All American Pipeline, said the company doesn’t comment on legal proceedings.

Eminent domain is usually used by the government to take land from people with just compensation, but only for projects that benefit the public. The power is sometimes granted to private companies that build public projects. However, attorneys for landowners and MCAP don’t believe that Byhalia Pipeline counts as one of those companies.

Corbin-Johnson will hear arguments at 11 a.m. April 23 on the question of whether Byhalia Pipeline qualifies to use the power of eminent domain.

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission will consider two resolutions that would allow the company to purchase two county-owned, tax-delinquent properties for the project.

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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