A woman holds an anti-Byhalia Pipeline sign during a March in February 2021 in Memphis.
People march down South Main Street toward City Hall during a protest organized by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in February. Byhalia Pipeline will have to face MCAP in court in July after a judge ruled the company’s withdrawal of two eminent domain lawsuits didn’t free it from the group’s claims. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Byhalia Pipeline backpedaled on its attempt to take easements from Memphis landowners. But now it’s stuck fighting Memphis Community Against the Pipeline on the question of whether the company is allowed to use the power of eminent domain under state law.

In a status call Friday, a Shelby County Circuit Court judge decided the company’s withdrawal of its eminent domain cases against two landowners does not dismiss the claims of MCAP, which joined the lawsuits in March.

Judge Felicia Corbin-Johnson will hear arguments from attorneys for Byhalia Pipeline and MCAP on the question at 11 a.m. on July 9.

Byhalia Connection Pipeline

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Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — announced plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposed route of the crude oil pipeline 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.

Johnson allowed MCAP to become a party to the two cases, so the group’s attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center could make arguments on behalf of the individual landowners and the broader Southwest Memphis community.

The company withdrew its eminent domain cases as part of an agreement with the Memphis City Council to pause its efforts to build the proposed pipeline in exchange for a delay in an ordinance that would block the project.

But the case withdrawals don’t prevent the company from bringing them back later or filing new cases against other landowners, Johnson pointed out in the Zoom call.

MCAP asked the court this week to still consider whether Byhalia Pipeline has the right to use eminent domain despite the dismissal. Eminent domain is a government power to take land that is sometimes delegated by state law to private companies for public projects.

George Nolan, senior attorney for the SELC, worried the company was trying to duck a ruling that would prevent it from using the power. He argued that the law Byhalia Pipeline cites for its authority to use eminent domain does not mention crude oil pipelines and therefore doesn’t apply to Byhalia Pipeline.

“It is just not fair to make Memphis landowners wait and wonder whether their land will be taken while the pipeline company avoids a court ruling on whether it even has the power of eminent domain,” Nolan said Wednesday.

Attorneys for Byhalia Pipeline argued that because they dropped their cases against landowners, it removed the basis for MCAP’s claims. However, Judge Johnson said the question of the company’s right to take land is a looming issue as long as the pipeline could still come through Memphis.

“That is a form of terrorism, and its impacts, Black folks have felt for centuries,” said MCAP co-founder Justin J. Pearson after the court’s decision. “Now we need to know whether or not the law is saying private companies have the ability to take Black folk’s land using the power of eminent domain or not.”

A Byhalia Pipeline representative did not immediately respond to a phone message requesting a comment.

Byhalia Pipeline has taken at least 10 Southwest Memphis landowners to court in an attempt to gain easements on their property through eminent domain. One landowner whose case was resolved with an agreement outside of court is suing the company, alleging she was tricked into signing a contract during a medical emergency

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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