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 Memphis City Council made steps to pass an ordinance protecting the Memphis Sand Aquifer after environmental activists spent nearly a year fighting to protect it against a crude-oil pipeline.
On Tuesday, the Memphis council passed on second reading an ordinance established the city government’s role in overseeing future developments in Memphis and how they may impact the aquifer, which serves as the area’s main drinking water supply.
The ordinance will be up for a third and final vote on August 17.
Since 2019, environmental and racial justice advocates have protested plans to build the Byhalia Pipeline, a joint venture between Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation, in a historically Black neighborhood located in Southwest Memphis. What started as criticisms turned into full-blown protests that gathered national attention and support from prominent political figures, including former Vice-President Al Gore and civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber.
The Memphis City Council first discussed legislation to protect the aquifer in May 2021 and introduced ordinances that would affect the Byhalia Pipeline.
The resolution established an Underground Infrastructure Advisory Board to review all future developments within Memphis and prohibit those that carried hazardous liquids. According to city council documents, developments must not pass within 1,000 feet of the Wellhead Protection Areas, which access existing public water supplies.
Byhalia Pipeline representatives threatened to file a lawsuit against the city council if they were to pass legislation that regulated future developments, causing the council to delay the vote.
Byhalia Pipeline representatives then abandoned the project in July but said they still considered filing a lawsuit if the resolution were to pass.
Councilman Jeff Warren, who sponsored the resolution, said “lawsuits are always possible.”
Local community leaders and critics called the Byhalia Pipeline an example of environmental racism, adding that Memphis communities were already burdened by harmful environmental issues caused by nearby oil refineries, wastewater treatment facilities, industrial manufacturers and power plants. These factors led to cancer risks four-times the national average, and any contamination of the area‘s drinking water could potentially turn the area into another Flint, Michigan, a city whose water system was contaminated with lead.
The council used the Federal and Tennessee Safe Drinking Water Act as an authorizing agent for local government’s ability to protect public drinking water.
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