A scheduled hearing Friday on whether Byhalia Pipeline can use eminent domain to take land may become a status call following the company’s abandonment of the project and its lawsuits, according to an attorney involved.
As a result, a legal question that could have set a precedent for the state will likely go unanswered.
Shelby County Circuit Court Div. 1 Judge Felicia Corbin-Johnson was to hear arguments by attorneys for Byhalia Pipeline, the landowners being sued and Memphis Community Against the Pipeline over whether the company can take land under eminent domain.
Learn more about the Byhalia Connection Pipeline and keep up with the latest news by following all of our coverage here.
In May, the company dropped its lawsuits against 10 landowners who refused to sell easements for the pipeline that would run through Black Southwest Memphis neighborhoods, but did so without prejudice, meaning they could refile them at any time. MCAP, which joined the landowners in the lawsuit in March, had asked the court to continue with hearings to determine whether the company could legally seize land.
After pressure from the community and proposed ordinances against the project by city and county governments, Plains All American Pipeline announced last week that it would no longer pursue its joint venture with Valero Energy to build the Byhalia Connection, a crude oil pipeline. Representatives also committed, in an email to stakeholders, to dismissing the remaining two eminent domain cases with prejudice or without the possibility of suing the same landowners again.
Scott Crosby, an attorney with Burch, Porter and Johnson, said the dismissal of the lawsuits with prejudice ends the battle for his clients, Boxtown landowners Scottie Fitzgerald and Clyde Robinson. “Their land will never be threatened again by this company for eminent domain, ever. They’re grateful for that.”
Pipeline opponents saw the project as a risk to the city’s water supply and asserted that it targeted low-income Black communities already overburdened with pollution.
Corbin-Johnson’s ruling would have been the first in Tennessee regarding a private company claiming eminent domain for a crude oil pipeline, according to George Nolan, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The power to take land is sometimes delegated to private companies by state law. However, the law doesn’t apply to crude oil pipelines, and the Byhalia Connection wouldn’t have been in service to the public as required, the SELC, which represents MCAP, and Crosby argued.
Plains representatives have said the pipeline would have been of public use because much of society uses oil-based products.
The company won’t ask landowners who received payments for access to their land to return the money, said Plains communications manager Katie Martin last week in an email to stakeholders.
However, details of landowners’ options are unclear including whether they may keep the money and reclaim their easements. Plains representatives did not respond to voicemails seeking comment for this story.
Other landowners have contacted Crosby about undoing their contracts with Plains. Crosby said he’s still looking into the issue and plans to discuss it with Plains’ attorneys.
Plains claimed eminent domain against Jeffrey Alexander, a landowner whose plan to build a home in Boxtown was interrupted by the pipeline company, he told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in January.
When he learned Thursday of the project’s cancellation from an MLK50 reporter, he called it “wonderful news.”
“The fact that you don’t have any risk involved anymore, that’s a plus,” he said.
Alexander settled for an agreement with the company since he couldn’t afford to fight them in court, he said. Now, he has questions about what it means for his land.
“I guess I’m still married to them,” Alexander 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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