At first, it was just a few Black residents – most elderly – in one of Memphis’ poorer neighborhoods, up against a behemoth pipeline company.
Then some younger activists showed up. They organized rallies, wrangled support from elected officials, filed and fought lawsuits. National media and celebrities took notice.
And then late Friday afternoon came the news: Developers of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline – what proponents insisted would create hundreds of jobs and what opponents called the embodiment of environmental racism and a threat to the water supply – would no longer pursue the project.
Byhalia Connection Pipeline
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The explanation given was “lower US oil production resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” but at least one environmental activist gave the credit to pipeline opponents, including the grassroots Memphis Community Against the Pipeline organization
“Byhalia Pipeline canceled!” tweeted former Vice President Al Gore. “Congrats to @MemphisCAP_org & the community of SW Memphis who made their voices heard to stop this reckless, racist ripoff! No more oil in our soil!”
At a hastily called gathering Friday evening at Alonzo Weaver Park in Southwest Memphis — where MCAP held most of its rallies — MCAP founder Justin J. Pearson stood with his hands stretched to the sky, thanking God.
“This is where what we view as power, met people-power, in a community they thought was powerless,” Pearson said. “It’s time to make sure we’ll never have to fight this fight again. And when we pass those laws, it will be an even bigger celebration.”
The announcement came just days before both the Memphis City Council and a Shelby County Commission committee were scheduled to hear measures that could stop the controversial pipeline.
In an email to stakeholders, a pipeline spokesperson supplied talking points that hinted at the tensions between a billion-dollar industry and residents in the pipeline’s path, some of whom bristled at the sums developers offered for property that had been in their family for generations. Developers also used eminent domain, a power typically reserved for the government, to seize land from those who refused to sell.
“Here are some key points for your constituents,” wrote Katie Martin, communications manager for Plains All American Pipeline.
“The vast majority of the landowners along the Byhalia Connection route have been compensated. Unless they request otherwise, the landowners may retain compensation they have received.”
“Yesterday, Byhalia Connection submitted dismissal orders for the two remaining eminent domain lawsuits with prejudice. With the cancellation of the construction project, we will not be seeking Rights of Way from those landowners.”
It’s unclear whether those who have already sold their easements to developers will be able to get the land rights back; calls and emails to spokespeople for the project were not immediately returned.
The proposed route of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline would have passed through several Black Memphis neighborhoods, including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown. Announced in 2019, the project— a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — would have connected the Valero Memphis Refinery with a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi.
Kizzy Jones, an MCAP co-founder, was “smiling from ear to ear,” when she heard the news, she said.
“We knew it would be a victory for us, we just didn’t know how long the process was going to take,” Jones said. “We don’t really know if we want to cry, laugh, shout, run or whatever but I know we’re extremely happy.”
From announcement to end
When Byhalia announced its plans in late 2019, the project received little opposition, except from the Boxtown Neighborhood Association. But when residents held a community meeting and invited their elected representatives, none attended.
Over the objections of community members, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit to the project in November. The permit authorizes construction near and through state-regulated bodies of water.
The company used a fast-tracked federal permitting process, and that permit was granted in February. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 allows companies to get a single federal permit for water crossings, rather than seek individual permits for each. It does not require that the company produce an environmental impact statement or notify the public.
The company, meanwhile, touted the jobs the project would create and highlighted “ripple effect benefits” of construction, like money spent at restaurants and gas stations. One of the people paid to promote the project was Deidre Malone, who served as a public affairs advisor for Plains. At the same time, she served as second vice chair of the NAACP Memphis Branch, which accepted a $25,000 donation from developers.
But opposition to the project was building. Activists formed MCAP late last year, holding rallies against the project and gradually collecting support from politicians and community members. The Memphis City Council unanimously opposed the pipeline in a resolution, and both Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris also came out against it.
The pipeline also faced its share of legal battles. Byhalia Pipeline filed eminent domain lawsuits against landowners, settling some out of court and withdrawing the remaining two. But the court battle continued, with MCAP challenging whether the company could still use the tactic in the future.
By February, the proposed pipeline had gained national attention, with Gore headlining an opposition rally in Southwest Memphis in March. The longtime environmentalist was one of the highest-profile opponents of the project at the time, calling it “reckless, racist and a rip-off.”
“I think that in general, people have been starting, just recently, to wake up to the threat posed to the Memphis water supply,” he told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism after the rally.
“And the science tells us that putting a high-pressure large oil pipeline — built by companies with a demonstrated record of leaks and violations and prosecutions — is reckless.”
The Rev. William Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, a faith-based movement against poverty and systemic racism, spoke against the pipeline at a rally in April. He rebuked those who’d supported the project, especially chastising churches, charitable organizations and politicians for accepting donations from Byhalia Pipeline.
At least 26 area organizations took money, including the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, Mid-South Food Bank, the Uplift Westwood CDC and the University of Memphis – Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research.
Giving money with no apparent strings attached is a well-known tactic used by fossil fuel companies to manipulate communities, according to the “Fossil Fueled Foolery” report released earlier this year by the national NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.
“I don’t care what you are and I don’t care how Black you claim to be. If you took money and you claim to represent Black folk … you need to give it back publicly,” Barber said.
“If you took money, you’re taking 30 pieces of silver to betray your people,” he added.
On Friday evening, he tweeted: “Victory! The Byhalia Pipeline project is being suspended by the oil company behind it. This is a win for the entire community of Memphis, TN, but especially those in the Black community who fought it courageously.”
Kathy Robinson, another MCAP co-founder, said Friday she was caught off guard by the news because she was prepared for the fight to take years like other pipelines, which have seen a decade of opposition before they were canceled. At a public meeting in November, MCAP co-founder Jones pointedly asked Malone what it would take to stop the project.
“I’m going back to Deidre Malone’s words: it’s a strong possibility that this pipeline is coming. I thought they would have fought to stay longer,” Robinson said.
In May, Plains and the city council agreed to a “mutual pause” for nearly two months while the company re-strategized and the council strengthened an ordinance against it.
A county commission committee was scheduled to consider next week a joint city-county ordinance that would amend the uniform development code to require at least 1,500 feet between an oil pipeline and residential areas.
City Councilman Jeff Warren said he’d still push ahead with a council ordinance that would have given the body final say over the Byhalia Connection and similar projects in the future, though with less urgency now.
“That’s going to give us even more time to get public comment and get it right and make sure everybody’s behind it as we move forward,” Warren said. “It’ll be introduced at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, and will have its first official reading mid-July after public comment,” he said.
“This is a sign that people are waking up to the need to protect water resources,” Warren said. “And in Memphis where our only source of water is our aquifer, it is paramount that we do everything that we can to protect it for future generations.”
Reached Friday, Samuel Hardaway, a Boxtown resident who was one of the pipeline’s earliest opponents, was elated.
“I’m happy for myself, I’m happy for my mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, and the young generation behind us,” Hardaway said. “Hopefully, they can hold onto all this property. When I’m dead and gone, it’s still here for them.”
“I’m glad to see that a lot of people stepped up. Just a few senior citizens wasn’t going to get it,” Hardaway said. “I’m glad to see all the communities — Whitehaven, Westwood, Boxtown, Walker Homes, South Memphis — I’m glad to see all those communities came together and got involved.
“Because on this end, the South part of Memphis, it was almost like a losing cause at first, but we made up our mind we were going to fight it ‘til the end.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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