Gas stations with convenience stores are often the only source of grocery shopping for residents in low income neighborhoods. (Photo: John Partipilo)
On Tuesday, Memphis City Council pushed back against gas station developers and passed a regulatory ordinance in favor of residents concerned about pollution to the city’s drinking water.
In the past several months, residents and community leaders urged city and county officials to regulate undesirable companies–including gas stations– from springing up near their neighborhoods. Over the last decade, gas stations opened to the extent that the city now has six gas stations for every 10,000 people, compared to the national average of four per 10,000 people.
Numerous residents from the Binghampton neighborhood expressed their concerns about developers seeking to build another gas station near their neighborhood. Speakers feared that the petroleum products from the pipes under the stations were seeping into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provides the city with drinking water.
I just cannot get over the fact that we have 50% more gas stations per 10,000 residents than the national average. I just cannot get past that.
– Memphis City Councilmember Martavius Jones
They also expressed worry that the excess number of gas stations would chase away other desirable developments, such as grocery stores. In some areas of Memphis, there are more gas stations than grocery stores, leading to food deserts and residents relying on the gas station mini markets for food.
“We asked (developers) them,’Why do we need a gas station? We asked them why here, why now?’ We weren’t given any answers and they’re using predatory tactics to try to get their agenda pushed forward,” said one man, who noted there are 15 gas stations in his neighborhood alone. “We ask that you listen to the community. The community does not want this.”
“We need things like grocery stores,” he added.
In March, the council passed a 245-day moratorium because the city has become saturated with gas stations, said Councilmember Worth Morgan, and city officials sought to further regulate gas and oil development.
But this didn’t stop station operators from trying to open more gas stations.
Although some of the operators have promised to provide fresh produce in the station mini markets, residents are not convinced they would follow through on their promises. Council members agreed and voted in favor of the Binghampton neighborhood.
This was the second time in the past few months that council members ruled against gas station developers.
“I just cannot get over the fact that we have 50% more gas stations per 10,000 residents than the national average. I just cannot get past that,” said Councilmember Martavius Jones.
The council then went one step further and passed an ordinance to prevent gas and oil developers from using the city’s streets without special permission in order to add protections for residents and the aquifer.
Environmental activists viewed the decision favorably in the push for environmental justice.
Over the past year, activists and community leaders fought to stop the Byhalia Pipeline, a 49-mile oil pipeline, from running through predominantly Black Memphis neighborhoods. Although developers eventually canceled the project in June, citing the pandemic as having significantly affected oil production, Protect Our Aquifer director Sarah Houston said they had simply won by default.
“There’s a lot of contamination already in our soils, in our aquifer right now,” said Houston.
Houston and representatives from other environmental groups, such as Memphis Against the Pipeline and the Southern Environmental Law Center, worked with council members to draft up legislation to regulate future projects. On Tuesday, they urged council members to pass another ordinance to prevent pipelines from being built within 1,500 feet of most residential areas, such as churches and schools, to further provide protections for residents and the aquifer.
“We should have had safeguards in place because this is our water, this is our town, and these are our people, at some point we are going to have to decide to be proactive instead of reactive and proactive means that we’re going to make decisions are are going to be in the interest of the next generation.” said Jason Pearson, a pastor at Community of Faith Christian Church. He is related to Justin J. Pearson, another environmental activist and co-founder of Memphis Against the Pipeline.
The Shelby County Commission passed a similar ordinance in September.
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