Memphis Council delays vote to preserve aquifer

Vote could negatively affect controversial Byhalia Pipeline

Memphis residents are pushing 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 (PICTURED) is located on along the Mississippi River's Lake McKellar in South Memphis. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)
Memphis residents are pushing 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 (PICTURED) is located on along the Mississippi River's Lake McKellar in South Memphis. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

The Memphis City Council is expected to make a final decision within the next few weeks on an ordinance regarding the Memphis Sand Aquifer and its preservation. 

On Tuesday, the council delayed a vote until July 6 to recognize the importance of the aquifer as the sole source of drinking water for many Shelby County residents while recognizing the impact contamination would have on the local environment. 

The ordinance was sponsored by Councilmembers Jeff Warren and Edmund Ford in regards to the controversial Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a joint venture between Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation.

Memphis Councilmember Edmund Ford (Photo: Memphis.gov)
Memphis Councilmember Edmund Ford (Photo: Memphis.gov)

The 45-mile crude oil pipeline would pass through mostly Black neighborhoods from Memphis into Marshall County, Mississippi. Residents and opponents of the pipeline fear any leak from the pipeline could contaminate the Memphis Aquifer. Because of this, several groups launched legal battles against the pipeline, including Memphis Against the Pipeline and Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). 

A new study conducted by the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research at the University of Memphis showed that there are two points along the path of the pipeline where shallow aquifers connected to the Memphis Aquifer, increasing the risks of contamination. 

If the ordinance passes, pipeline officials would have to seek approval from the Memphis Underground Review Board and prove that public water supply wells are 1,000 feet from the project boundary. 

An investigation would also be launched into the potential impact a company carrying hazardous materials would have on minority populations and neighborhoods historically burdened by environmental pollution. 

Opponents of the pipeline, including former Vice President Al Gore, called the pipeline an example of environmental racism, recognizing that Black neighborhoods tended to shoulder the risks of being exposed to toxics from nearby industrial facilities. 

A study identified Southwest Memphis as a hotspot for air pollution, noting that residents faced cancer risks “four times higher than the national average.”

The council began talks about an ordinance in February when members learned federal and state permits for the project did not evaluate risks to the aquifer. This prompted the SELC to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a permit without evaluating the risks of the pipeline to the community. SELC and others also called on the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to revoke permits awarded to the pipeline. 

Pipeline representatives have argued that since the project received federal and state permits, the ordinance reaches beyond city government authority, according to MLK50. However, council members asserted that the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Tennessee Safe Drinking Water Act and the Memphis City Charter allowed the city to pass laws in regards to the health of the city.