The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Memphis City Council bans Byhalia Pipeline over aquifer contamination concerns

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01312021 VALERO Memphis Refinery Focht 008Memphis residents have pushed back against the Byhalia Pipeline project. The proposed pipeline has been the subject of controversy since 2019. The joint venture project would build a 49-mile pipeline between Memphis and Mississippi and would run through several Black communities in Memphis. VALERO Memphis Refinery, shown here, is along the Mississippi River’s Lake McKellar in South Memphis. Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Opponents of Memphis pipeline cite textbook examples of environmental racism

(This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout).

Memphis City Council passed an ordinance this month protecting the Memphis Sand Aquifer after environmental activists spent nearly a year fighting to protect it against a crude-oil pipeline.

The city council passed on second reading an ordinance establishing the city government’s role in  overseeing future developments in Memphis and how they may impact the aquifer, which serves as the area’s main drinking water supply. 

The ordinance will be up for a third and final vote on Aug. 17.

Since 2019, environmental and racial justice advocates have protested plans to build the Byhalia Pipeline, a joint venture between Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation, in a historically Black neighborhood located in Southwest Memphis. What started as criticisms turned into full-blown protests that gathered national attention and support from prominent political figures, including former Vice President Al Gore and civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber.

The council used the Federal and Tennessee Safe Drinking Water Act as an authorizing agent for local government’s ability to protect public drinking water.

The Memphis City Council first discussed legislation to protect the aquifer in May 2021 and introduced ordinances that would affect the Byhalia Pipeline. 

The resolution established an Underground Infrastructure Advisory Board to review all future developments within Memphis and prohibit those that carried hazardous liquids. According to council documents, developments must not pass within 1,000 feet of the Wellhead Protection Areas, which access existing public water supplies. 

Byhalia Pipeline representatives threatened to file a lawsuit against the city council if they were to pass legislation that regulated future developments, causing the council to delay the vote. 

Byhalia Pipeline representatives then abandoned the project in July but said they still considered filing a lawsuit if the resolution were to pass. 

Councilman Jeff Warren, who sponsored the resolution, said “lawsuits are always possible.”

Local community leaders and critics called the Byhalia Pipeline an example of environmental racism, adding that Memphis communities were already burdened by harmful environmental issues caused by nearby oil refineries, wastewater treatment facilities, industrial manufacturers and power plants.

These factors led to cancer risks four-times the national average, and any contamination of the area’s drinking water could potentially turn the area into another Flint, Michigan, a city whose water system was contaminated with lead.

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