Memphis Council bridges regulatory gaps that have threatened water
Memphis residents 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 (PICTURED) is located on along the Mississippi River’s Lake McKellar in South Memphis. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)
The Memphis City Council approved an ordinance to bridge regulatory gaps that have left the city’s drinking water vulnerable and added protections for residents living near toxic materials.
On Tuesday, council members debated three ordinances created as a result of protests against a pipeline set to be built near a historic Black neighborhood.
In late 2019, civil-rights advocates learned of plans to build the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a 49-mile pipeline set to cross through Memphis into Mississippi. In its path sat Boxtown, located in South Memphis, and the Davis Wellfield, from which the city pumped its natural drinking water. As a result, community members formed Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP) to combat the pipeline’s development and joined other environmental organizations to protest threats to the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which is the city’s primary supply of drinking water.
At Tuesday’s session, council members passed an ordinance to create a wellhead protection overlay district, which limited development from being near areas where the city pumped its drinking water. About 25% of the city is located in wellhead zones.
“Even though the Byhalia Pipeline is cancelled, there will be plans for more high-risk projects that endanger the Memphis Sand Aquifer in the future,” said Sarah Houston, executive director of Protect Our Aquifer. “This ordinance creates long-overdue protections that will help prevent contamination in vulnerable parts of our aquifer system.”
Council members delayed a final vote on two other ordinances created to bridge other regulatory gaps.
One ordinance addressed the city’s history of environmental racism. Initially Byhalia pipeline representatives called the area the “point of least resistance,” and there are currently almost 20 toxic-chemical facilities among South Memphis’ predominantly Black neighborhoods. About 60% of gas stations are currently located within census tracts that are 75% Black, according to council documents.
The final ordinance amended Memphis’ zoning regulations to match Shelby County’s 1,500 setback ordinance for pipeline developments from most residential areas.
Both are important in providing protections to Memphis residents and the aquifer, said Justin Pearson, co-founder of MCAP.
“If you’re a corporation that has two brains about you, all you have to do is go around those wellheads areas. That’s why we have to pass more legislation that protects the rest of our city from pipelines or projects that would be able to go around the city,” he said.
After months of protests throughout 2020, MCAP gained support from the Shelby County Commission, which struck down the sale of several land parcels in March required for the Byhalia project to continue. The Byhalia pipeline project was eventually abandoned several months later in July.
On Sept. 8, Shelby County commissioners voted in favor of requiring future pipeline developments to be at least 1,500 feet away from most residential areas protections, although they made exceptions for existing pipelines.
But this was only the beginning, said Pearson.
“We’ve been really fortunate that we haven’t had any terrible spills that have destroyed our access to drinking water, but we know that there are threats today, already, to our aquifer,” he said in a press conference Tuesday morning.
Civil-rights advocates urged council members to pass all three ordinances in order to protect the city from dealing with the brunt of future environmental disasters caused by pipeline developments.
If you're a corporation that has two brains about you, all you have to do is go around those wellhead areas. That's why we have to pass more legislation that protects the rest of our city from pipelines or projects that would be able to go around the city.
– Justin Pearson, Memphis Against the Pipeline
“It gives our legal representation the potential fire power it needs to battle a decision that may come down the line in 50 years,” said Houston.
Houston and others also argued that the ordinance would promote business interests by keeping Memphis’s water from becoming contaminated, such is the case in Flint, Michigan. Valero and Fedex, who currently have business interests in Memphis, have largely supported the ordinances.
Council members acknowledged that they have received mostly positive feedback in support of the ordinances but voted to delay a final vote on amending Memphis’ zoning to match Shelby County. The ordinance will return to council in two weeks.
“I think we should back our county commissioners on this because I think it’s a good law and it provides an additional protection of our communities,” said Councilmember Dr. Jeff Warren, “but I need you all to come to that conclusion too, and I would like to have you have the time to do that if that’s what you need.”
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