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)
The Shelby County Commission Land Use Planning, Transportation & Codes Enforcement committee members voted in favor of an ordinance to create distance between all future pipeline developments and residential areas, leading the way for an anti-pipeline ordinance to pass in the full commission meeting next week.
On Wednesday, an ordinance to create 1,500-foot setbacks for pipelines from all residential areas was up for a final committee vote. Amendments made include exceptions for existing and new oil pipelines located within the property boundaries of specific developments, such as processing facilities and retail service stations. New pipelines within existing rights of way could seek permission through a special exception process.
For decades, Shelby County communities in Southwest Memphis have dealt with having their neighborhoods located near industrial sites, including an oil refinery and a coal ash pond, dealing with cancer rates four times the national average. Shelby County’s remaining untouched assets included a sand aquifer that provides most of Memphis resident’s drinking water.
In 2019, Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation announced a joint venture to build a 49-mile pipeline that would travel through Memphis into Mississippi. Because the pipeline would cross through the Davis Wellfield, an area where water is pumped from the aquifer, critics believed the pipeline posed a risk to the county’s drinking water.
Months of protests ensued with support nationwide. Groups such as Memphis Community Against the Pipeline and the Southern Environmental Law Firm urged county officials to take action, and in March, commissioners struck down the sale of several land parcels required by the Byhalia project to continue.
When the moment came to stand up and do something beyond symbolic support, said Justin Pearson, co-founder of the organization Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, commissioners showed their support and voted against the sale on March 22, “which provided a lot of wind in our backs and provided an opportunity for us to continue to galvanize and organize as a community to stop the Byhalia Connection Pipeline.”
Afterward, both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission advanced legislation to protect the sand aquifer and to halt all future pipeline construction and received threats of legal action from the Byhalia pipeline partners.
With these amendments, the ordinance had received support from most of those parties involved, including Valero, FedEx, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Protect our Aquifer and Southern Environmental Law Firm.
“To some degree it does embarrass me that I forget from time to time how fortunate we are, how gifted we are to receive this blessing from the lord to have this natural resource that so many throughout this country and this world do not have,” said Commissioner Michael Whaley.
Still, Commissioner Edmund Ford hesitated and asked for a two-week deferral out of concern for commission logistics and fears that federal laws could preempt their decision.
Commissioner Reginald Milton objected to the ordinance as it stood, and commissioners voted on whether the ordinance would be delayed again. The objection was narrowly shot down by a vote of 6 to 5.
Commissioner Mark Billingsley asked to be added as a sponsor to the setback ordinance before the final vote, and the chairman announced that per the commission’s rules, the ordinance needed a simple majority of seven votes to pass.
The setback ordinance passed 8 to 0. Commissioners David Bradford, Ford and Amber Mills abstained from voting.
Cheers broke out among the council members and residents who had spoken in support.
“Today, the county commission moved forward as leaders in our community to take responsibility for protecting our community,” said Pearson. “The status quo leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable to crude oil pipeline companies risking our homes, our children’s schools, and our most valuable natural resource — the Memphis Sand Aquifer. This upcoming Monday, the commission will be able to pass this legislation and send it to the city council for final passage which brings us a step closer to justice.”
The ordinance is expected to fully pass on Monday and currently has seven sponsors.
Pearson said the next step is to encourage the Memphis City Council to pass a similar ordinance in order for the setback to become a joint-ordinance law.
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