Memphis residents pushed back against the Byhalia Pipeline project. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)
Nearly a year of protests and political debates culminated in the Shelby County Commission passing a one-of-a-kind ordinance to protect the county’s sole source of drinking water.
The Shelby County Commissions voted 10-0—Commissioners David Bradford and Amber Mills abstained—in support of an ordinance to prevent pipelines from being built within 1,500 feet of most residential areas, such as churches and schools, in a move seen by civil rights advocates as a form of environmental justice.
The Memphis City Council will vote on a similar ordinance next week to create a joint-motion to amend the Memphis and Shelby County unified development code.
Concern for the aquifer started more than a year ago when Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation announced their plans in 2019 to build the 49-mile Byhalia pipeline through a historic Black community in Southwest Memphis into Mississippi.
Civil-rights advocates complained that the Black neighborhoods were already burdened by decades of pollution from nearby power plants, leading to cancer risks at four-times the national average. The area’s Memphis Sand Aquifer provides the city with natural drinking water, but because the pipeline would pass through the Davis Wellfield, pipeline critics worried crude oil would seep into the aquifer through the wellfield.
It won't solve decades of environmental injustices, it won't solve nearly a century of neglect to our aquifer, but what it will do is begin to ask the right questions and provide us with protections that we do not currently have.
– Sarah Houston, Protect Our Aquifer
Critics also alleged that clear regulatory gaps led to the Byhalia project receiving the necessary permits without needing to conduct environmental impact reports. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed suit on behalf of the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline and Protect Our Aquifer, among other organizations, against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a permit to allow the corps to fast track the pipeline project. The SELC eventually dropped its suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We’re the largest city in the country that gets all of its drinking water from the aquifer,” said Ward Archer, president of Protect Our Aquifer. “We need help.”
Protests against the pipeline gained nationwide support and advocates eventually brought their battle before the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council. Commissioners struck down the sale of several land parcels required by the Byhalia project and developed a resolution and an ordinance to offer more permanent protections.
After months of debate, the ordinances were amended to make exceptions for existing pipelines and created a special exceptions process for new developments.
On Sept. 8, representatives from Valero, FedEx, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, Protect Our Aquifer and SELC announced their support for the ordinance at the Shelby County Commission Land Use Planning, Transportation & Codes Enforcement committee meeting.
“This ordinance isn’t the end. It won’t solve decades of environmental injustices, it won’t solve nearly a century of neglect to our aquifer, but what it will do is is begin to ask the right questions and provide us with protections that we do not currently have,” said Sarah Houston, spokesperson for Protect Our Aquifer, in support of the ordinance.
Houston emphasized that the pipeline provided few benefits to the city compared to the risk that Memphis’ drinking water could become poisonous, such as in the case of Flint, Michigan.
“The road of opportunity to catalyze the environmental justice Movement in Memphis is possible,” said Justin Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. ”Memphis can be the best place and healthiest place to live in America, but we’ve got to make laws and policies that help us to get there.
The Memphis City Council is scheduled to vote on the joint ordinance on Sept. 21 and will eventually vote on a separate ordinance to protect the aquifer while promoting environmental justice.
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