“The point of least resistance.”
That’s what a crude oil company’s representative called our predominantly Black, Southwest Memphis community as it planned to ram a pipeline through our neighborhoods. It’s not surprising the corporation thought it could build a dangerous pipeline through a minority community with little pushback; after all, it’s something fossil fuel companies have done for decades. The surprise came when we mobilized to stop them.
Editor’s note: After almost seven months of delay, the Memphis City Council is at its third and final reading on three ordinances that would regulate pipelines.
If approved Tuesday during the 3:30 p.m. meeting, the measures will become laws that will require new city approvals and create restrictions for any revival of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline and future projects like it.
One measure is a joint ordinance between the council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners that would require 1,500 feet between a crude oil pipeline and residential areas.
The now-canceled pipeline would have traversed the Davis Wellfield, where Memphis Light Gas and Water Division pulls drinking water. Activists and experts said the pipeline would pose a risk to the city’s water supply and its source, the Memphis Sand aquifer. Another ordinance would create a Wellhead Protection Overlay District that, without a council-approved exception, prohibits various risky developments near wellheads, including oil-related business.
A third ordinance would create a new permit and review process for the underground storage or movement of hazardous materials. The permit would give the council the final say over such projects.
In late 2019, Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation announced plans to build the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, which would have moved crude oil from the Valero Memphis Refinery to a facility in North Mississippi. The reckless pipeline would have plowed through Southwest Memphis communities that have a history of being overburdened with pollution from the oil refinery, a coal-fired power plant and many other industrial facilities nearby.
The company threatened landowners along the pipeline route with condemnation lawsuits if they refused to sell easements on their private property.
The pipeline would have also been built over the Memphis Sand aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for Memphis and surrounding areas. The planned route also cut through protected areas of the Davis Wellfield, which pumps drinking water from the aquifer to the surface for Southwest Memphis communities to drink. A pipeline leak or spill in these areas could put millions of gallons of groundwater at risk of being contaminated with hazardous chemicals.
The project was immediately met with opposition by the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, Walker Homes Neighborhood Association and many others in the community. Southwest Memphians are tired of bearing the brunt of decades of environmental racism. A legacy of industrial pollution has taken a toll on communities where cancer rates are four times higher than the national average.
The pushback intensified when a pipeline company representative told us they chose this route through our neighborhoods because we were the “point of least resistance.”
The phrase became a rallying point for communities in the proposed pipeline’s path, like Westwood, a majority Black community, and Boxtown, a neighborhood established more than a century ago by freed enslaved people. We began to fight back against the dangerous project by elevating voices that have been ignored for generations.
Our struggle wasn’t a new one. Pipeline companies have targeted communities of color for years. Backers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline attempted to build a compressor station in Union Hill, Virginia, an historic Black community. The Dakota Access Pipeline was slated to cut through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. We hoped our fight could disrupt the pattern of environmental racism.
We marched. We rallied. We canvassed. We fought in court, in the streets, in City Hall and even at the White House.
Then, we won.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Plains All American announced they were abandoning plans for the pipeline. The company blamed “lower US oil production resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” but it’s impossible to ignore the impact of our determined grassroots coalition — our people-powered movement.
The pipeline’s cancellation is proof that when you amplify the voices of those who have been marginalized for decades, you create a force that is more powerful than the wealth and clout of multi-billion-dollar companies. It’s more powerful than the team of lawyers hired to block our efforts. It’s more powerful than the fossil fuel industry that lobbied against us. It’s more powerful than the pipeline representatives who call our communities the “point of least resistance.”
We proved we are not the “point of least resistance” – we are the point of resilience.
But our fight isn’t over. While we are taking a moment to celebrate this immense victory for Southwest Memphis, this movement’s next challenge is to turn environmental justice into just policy.
The Byhalia Pipeline exposed the many regulatory gaps that leave communities of color at risk. The federal permitting process lacked opportunities for public input, state agencies ignored a lengthy list of environmental racism concerns, and there was no government body tasked with protecting the Memphis Sand aquifer from reckless and irresponsible projects.
That has to change.
We are now pushing federal and state agencies to perform thorough environmental justice reviews before granting permits, especially for projects that could clearly have disparate impacts on communities of color. We are also urging the Memphis City Council to pass ordinances that create more oversight for pipeline projects, better protect the Memphis Sand aquifer, and safeguard Memphians’ drinking water.
These common-sense and long-overdue steps will ensure our victory isn’t limited to a single pipeline project, but creates meaningful change that can last for generations to come. That is justice that our ancestors and descendants deserve.
Justin J. Pearson is a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.
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