A view from the corner of Field and Outlet roads. Byhalia Pipeline seeks to gain control of nearby property.
Byhalia Pipeline seeks to gain control of property near the corner of Fields and Outlet roads, which is along the route of the proposed Byhalia Connection oil pipeline. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

The clock is winding down on the Memphis City Council’s nearly two-month pause on ordinances that could thwart the controversial Byhalia Pipeline, a project with high stakes for environmental justice advocates, protections for the city’s water supply, and billions in revenue for fossil fuel companies.

Meanwhile, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline organizers are trying to stop the project on three other fronts, including at the state and federal levels. Members of MCAP will meet Friday with officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which the group wants to revoke a key permit for the project.

“This permit we know is wrong. We know they ignored Black people and perpetuated environmental racism,” said Justin J. Pearson, an MCAP co-founder. “If you get federal funding, you can’t have policies and practices that hurt and harm Black people. Well, Black people are being harmed.

Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. File photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

“We’re not paying to be discriminated against; that’s not why we pay taxes.”

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.

The pipeline would also run through a Memphis Light, Gas and Water wellfield and areas that have breaches in a layer of clay that protects the aquifer.

Byhalia Connection Pipeline

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Plains representatives have argued the pipeline will be buried a safe distance above the aquifer and that monitoring technology mitigates the risk of spills. However, the company has spilled oil before; in 2018, a jury convicted Plains on criminal charges for spilling as much as 3,400 barrels in California in 2015. The company estimated cleanup costs to be $460 million according to a March filing with the United State Securities and Exchange Commission.

State and federal pressure

In November, TDEC issued an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit for the project, which authorizes construction near and through state-regulated bodies of water.

The approval came despite community members’ objections during the public comment period. In a community meeting months later, a TDEC official said the permit evaluation didn’t consider risks to the Memphis Sand aquifer, from which the city draws its drinking water.

Kathy Robinson, also an MCAP co-founder, said this isn’t just about the revocation of Byhalia Pipeline’s permit, but policy change. Just as TDEC considers a proposed pipeline’s impact on water, land and plants when evaluating proposed projects, organizers want TDEC to consider potential environmental racism.

Kathy Robinson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. File photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

“Those are things that need to be considered going back to this project and moving forward for other communities,” Robinson said. “These companies target low-income, minority communities. This won’t be the last time.”

TDEC’s focus will be to listen to the concerns and suggestions of community leaders, said Eric Ward, communications director for TDEC, in a statement.

“In pursuit of our mission to enhance the quality of life for citizens of Tennessee and to be stewards of Tennessee’s natural environment, TDEC believes it is important to take advantage of opportunities to listen to citizens and community leaders on issues that impact their communities,” Ward said.

MCAP is also lobbying the United States Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize the civil rights complaint MCAP filed against TDEC in May.

The EPA complaint 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. MCAP has asked the EPA to require TDEC to revoke the permit and create a policy that accounts for potential discrimination in permit evaluations.

What’s next

The pressure is a lead-up to the council’s next meeting July 6, when they are set to reconsider a city ordinance that creates an evaluation process for oil pipelines and gives final approval power to the council in its latest draft.

The council will also consider a joint ordinance with the Shelby County Board of Commissioners that would amend the city and county’s zoning code to require at least 1,500 feet between an oil pipeline and residential areas. The commissioners delayed discussing the county-side ordinance to align with the council’s pause.

Last month, the council agreed to the temporary cease-fire with Plains just as the city ordinance was up for its third and final reading. Allan Wade, the council’s attorney, said he wasn’t consulted on the ordinance and had doubts about its legality. Councilman Jeff Warren, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, disputed Wade’s claim at the time.

In March, the council unanimously stated their opposition to the pipeline with a resolution. However, the council wasn’t unanimous on whether the ordinance should be narrowly tailored to stop this pipeline or a broader fix to include future projects that may threaten the city’s water supply. Some council members, including Frank Colvett, worried a broader law would have unintended effects on existing businesses, although he didn’t specify those effects. 

Representatives for Plains All American Pipeline and fossil fuel interest groups have told the council and commissioners that they oppose the ordinances and they’ve hinted at legal challenges should local lawmakers approve the measures.

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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