Valero Memphis Refinery billowing smoke. Valero was one of two companies proposing the Byhalia Pipeline, a 40-mile oil conduit that would have gone through historic Black neighborhoods in Memphis. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)
Stopping the development of the Byhalia pipeline in Memphis was a first step towards protection of the Memphis Sand Aquifer but environmental activists say the real battle now lies in politics, where the government still needs to create permanent protections for Shelby County residents.
On Tuesday, the Memphis City Council once again delayed a final vote on an ordinance to protect the aquifer, which provides Memphians with their drinking water.
The ordinance is part of several resolutions to protect the aquifer after environmental activists and civil rights leaders spent nearly a year protesting the creation of the Byhalia pipeline that was set to cut through a historic Black neighborhood in Southwest Memphis.
The protests initially received little attention outside of Memphis, but the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers, spurred a new civil rights movement throughout the nation. National attention turned to Memphis, a city with a long history of environmental racism.
“Without the tragic lynching of George Floyd, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. Our movement would not be as strong, and this conversation connecting the intersectionality of economic exploitation and environmental injustice wouldn’t be happening,” said Justin Pearson, leader of the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.
“Black lives don’t just matter when they’re lynched by police officers, Black lives matter when the community is being polluted by toxins going through the air, into the water and into the soil,” he added.
While the Byhalia Pipeline project was dropped by Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline was joined by other environmental groups in the push to create permanent protections for Memphis communities and the aquifer.
Black lives don't just matter when they're lynched by police officers, Black lives matter when the community is being polluted by toxins going through the air, into the water and into the soil.
– Justin Pearson, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline
Two resolutions are headed through the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council. One is an ordinance to establish a 1,500 foot setback for pipelines from residential areas, and because it is an amendment of the local zoning code, it has to be adopted by both governing factions. The other is a city ordinance to protect the aquifer and promote environmental justice, both of which were proposed during the Byhalia pipeline controversy.
Before the Byhalia pipeline was canceled, Valero and Plains All American had received a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow the joint venture water crossings in the state, prompting the Southern Environmental Law Center to file a suit for failing to consider the environmental risks in the local community
“Those permits did not consider impacts on the groundwater at all. No federal agency required any groundwater study nor did the state of Tennessee require any sort of groundwater study to authorize this high pressure crude-oil pipeline to be built above the Memphis Sand Aquifer,” said George Nolan, SELC member. “That regulatory gap is something that needs to be filled.”
The Byhalia joint venture threatened to file a lawsuit if the ordinance was passed.
Amendments were added to the Memphis City Council ordinance to appease oil companies with existing pipelines. Those already established need not comply with the 1,500 foot setback from schools, places of worship, parks, family recreation centers or residences. Another amendment makes exceptions for companies that have already purchased land for future pipelines.
A spokesperson for Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said the ordinance has received support from Valero, FedEx, the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Protect our Aquifer and Southern Environmental Law Firm.
“Although we are disappointed Memphis City Council again delayed action on this ordinance, which creates much-needed protections for the Memphis Sand Aquifer, we are encouraged that this important conversation about the city’s sole source of drinking water will continue. We will not stop pushing city leaders to pass Ordinance 5794 and to safeguard the aquifer from irresponsible industrial projects,” said Nolan.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.