Justin Pearson, an organizer with Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, outside Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building today. Pearson urged the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to not sell county-owned land to Byhalia Pipeline. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

County-owned land sought by Byhalia Pipeline will stay with the county, the Shelby County Commission decided Monday.

The commission’s 9-2 vote to hold onto two vacant properties that developers needed to construct the controversial 49-mile Byhalia Connection Pipeline puts a snag in the company’s plans to build the crude oil pipeline through southwest Memphis. 

It’s a win for the community organizers who have fought the project for months and more recently with the help of high profile backers such as former Vice President Al Gore and actors Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo. But developers have already made clear that if one route was blocked, they’d try others.

Before the vote, Commissioner Tami Sawyer urged her colleagues to reject the sale and thwart what she and other pipeline opponents consider environmental racism.

“I’m just going to ask each of our fellow commissioners to rise to the occasion and listen to the people who are facing eminent domain, who already live in cancer clusters, who have lost a significant amount of family members to health issues due to dumping and pollution of their air and water — just due to the ZIP code that they live in,” Sawyer said.

“We declared racism a pandemic six months ago and yet we continue to pass and ignore things that fall into the line of what racism as a systemic institution looks like. This is a case of environmental racism playing out once again in Shelby County.”

A view of the county-owned land that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners declined to sell to Byhalia Pipeline. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

‘Couldn’t hold a conversation’

Opponents have flooded county commissioners with their objections, but Commissioner Amber Mills said that the critics she’s heard from “couldn’t hold a conversation.”

“They were given their talking points and they couldn’t answer questions. They couldn’t hold a conversation about the pipeline and speak to it. And their response was, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I was just told to call you.’ The messages I got were read straight from script.”

Sawyer called her comments disrespectful.

“We receive form letters all the time,” Sawyer said. “Never, as a commissioner, have I heard someone disrespect people who use a tool and insinuate that they are ignorant because of their use of a form letter or a call script. I think that’s disrespectful to the people who are using a tool.”

Mills disagreed.

“My point was that I tried to have a conversation and they could not hold a conversation about it,” Mills said. “I was not being disrespectful. It is just such a shame that we live in a time when truth and honesty gets distorted and twisted into something that it is not.”

How it started

Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — announced its plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposed route would connect the Valero Memphis Refinery and a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The route runs through several Black neighborhoods, including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.

The resolution would have sold two vacant Weaver Road properties totalling about 2.35 acres to pipeline developers for $11,363. 

Only Commissioners David Bradford and Mills voted in favor of the sale. Commissioners Mark Billingsley, Van Turner, Sawyer, Michael Whaley, Mick Wright, Reginald Milton, Mickell Lowery, Brandon Morrison and Eddie Jones voted against. Commissioners Willie Brooks and Edmund Ford Jr. were absent. During the meeting, Jones said he’d received some information regarding Ford and asked the commissioners to keep the Ford family in their prayers. He did not share any details.

Last month, Jeff Cosola, a public affairs advisor for Plains, said the company had already scoped out different routes in case the commissioners refused to sell the land.

“These alternative routes will cross other properties owned by Shelby County residents or businesses,” Cosola said in a statement.

The commission also rejected a resolution that would have formally asked the federal government to re-evaluate permits granted to the project.

‘We have power today’

On Monday morning, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline held a press conference in front of the Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building, where the commission usually meets, however most commissioners attended Monday’s meeting virtually.

Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of MCAP, urged the commission to vote against selling land to the pipeline company arguing it would only add to environmental racism that he said already overburdens Southwest Memphis.

“The country and its systems that support the wealthy and the privileged, they too often make us think that we are powerless in these fights,” Pearson said, “but we have power today, county commissioners.” 

“We have power today to make sure that justice is created, and you have that power in your hands by making sure that we deny the sale of land to Byhalia Pipeline today.”

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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