Southwest Memphis resident Anthony Hardaway protests the proposed Byhalia Pipeline at a March rally organized by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline at Alonzo Weaver Park. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Environmentalists have filed suit against a federal agency for issuing a permit to the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, claiming it did not properly evaluate the possible negative impact on the environment, including the Memphis Sand aquifer.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed its challenge late Thursday on behalf of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club. The groups are taking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee for issuing a Nationwide Permit 12 to the proposed crude oil pipeline project.

The lawsuit asks the court to nullify the permit for the project, which would force the company to seek a longer, more rigorous permitting process through the Environmental Protection Agency that includes input from the public.

Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — plans to build a 49-mile route between the Valero Memphis Refinery and the Valero Collierville Terminal in Marshall County, Mississippi. The route runs through several Black Southwest Memphis communities including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.

‘Disproportionate risks’ 

The NWP12 gives the company a single permit for crossing bodies of water rather than seeking individual permits for each one. It doesn’t require the company to produce an environmental impact statement and doesn’t make room for public comment.

Attorneys for the SELC argue the permit is being misused to fast-track pipeline projects like the Byhalia Connection.

“Communities who are being asked to bear the disproportionate risks associated with a large oil pipeline have every right to be fully informed and voice their concerns about the ramifications for their quality of life,” said Amanda Garcia, director of SELC’s Nashville office.

A representative for Byhalia Pipeline did not immediately respond to a phone message requesting comment on the lawsuit.

Aquifer not considered

The Army Corps issued the permit in 2017 then reviewed and approved it in February, despite requests from environmentalists and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen that the Corps reconsider.

Memphis District Commander Col. Zachary Miller explained the agency’s decision in a letter to Cohen. Miller said the permit’s criteria doesn’t consider risks to the aquifer and the permit doesn’t exempt the company from local regulation.

Opponents of the project have argued because the pipeline would pass through a city wellfield and over the Memphis Sand aquifer, it poses an unnecessary risk to the city’s sole source of drinking water. Company representatives, however, have said the pipeline would be buried a safe distance away from the aquifer and a spill is unlikely because of the latest pipeline technology. Plains has spilled oil before.

Silencing the community

The community and the environment pay when the company makes mistakes, according to Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of MCAP. 

“The federal government should be working to protect people in the way of environmental harm, not fast-tracking pipelines that cut directly through communities,” said Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of MCAP. “This permit silences the communities most impacted by oil and gas pipelines and fails to protect our drinking water and the streams flowing through our neighborhoods. Southwest Memphis communities deserve better than this.”

MCAP organizers also are seeking to appeal a state water crossing permit. However, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials have yet to take action in response to their requests.

Byhalia Pipeline representatives have said the company has all of the environmental permits it needs to begin construction. But Mayor Jim Strickland placed a hold on their application for city permits while he reviews the situation, he said.

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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