A woman holds plastic bottles filled with dirty and clean water.
Pearl Walker, the chair of the environmental justice committee for the NAACP Memphis Branch, holds bottles of clean and dirty water during an April rally at the National Civil Rights Museum against the proposed Byhalia Pipeline. Opponents of the project have taken multiple avenues to stop it, including appealing to local and federal officials. Photos by Brad Vest for MLK50

Pipeline opponents are turning up the pressure on the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for issuing a permit to the Byhalia Connection Pipeline.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a complaint Sunday with the United States Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. It alleges TDEC violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by issuing a permit to a pipeline that would disproportionately harm Black people.

The complaint asks the EPA to require TDEC to revoke the permit and create a policy that considers potential discrimination in permit evaluations.

Byhalia Connection Pipeline

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“The decision to issue a permit approving a high-pressure crude oil pipeline that runs through poor, majority Black communities in Southwest Memphis, and above the sole drinking water source for those communities, without any consideration of whether this decision would have discriminatory effects, constitutes a violation of Title VI,” Chelsea Bowling, associate attorney with the SELC, said in an email to the EPA.

Title VI of the pivotal Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically outlaws discrimination by programs and agencies that receive federal funding, which includes the states.

Kim Schofinski, deputy communications director for TDEC, said the agency is reviewing the complaint but can’t comment further because it is a legal matter.

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 Memphis neighborhoods, including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.

Plains spokeswoman Katie Martin did not respond to a request for comment.

Portrait of Justin J. Pearson holding a megaphone at a rally.
Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, speaks outside of Memphis City Hall after an April march against the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline.

Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of MCAP, criticized the process used by TDEC. “In their permitting processes, they (TDEC) have to, by law, consider what the impacts would be to communities like Boxtown and Westwood because those are the very communities that have been disproportionately impacted by racist practices and permitting practices for decades,” he said. “By not doing so, it is continuing a legacy of injustice that our (civil rights) laws don’t allow.”

TDEC issued Byhalia Pipeline an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit in November 2020, which authorizes the pipeline’s construction near state-regulated bodies of water.

The approval came despite community members’ objections during the public comment period. MCAP organizers and other complainants filed to appeal the decision. 

Opponents of the pipeline including Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and researchers at the University of Memphis have said the pipeline poses a risk to the Memphis Sand aquifer, from which the city draws its drinking water.

During a town hall held in February, Ronné Adkins, regional director of external affairs for TDEC, said the ARAP evaluation process doesn’t consider dangers to the aquifer, only its effects on surface waters.

On behalf of MCAP and other environmental groups, the SELC sent a letter late last month to TDEC demanding it revokes Byhalia Pipeline’s permit. The letter argues the permit should be revoked because the company failed to disclose that Valero owns a pipeline that makes the same connection the new extension would.

The letter is part of a series of steps MCAP has taken to fight the project. The organization filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers early last month for permitting the project.

Meanwhile, the Memphis City Council has a proposed ordinance of its own and another with the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meant to stop the pipeline. However, both measures won’t be considered until July as part of an agreement with Plains to “pause” efforts to build the pipeline.

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