When a community says no to big oil
Over the last year, residents of South Memphis, Tennessee have fought to stop the construction of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. The companies behind Byhalia promise economic opportunity and neighborhood investment. But members of the community have organized against the further development of oil and gas infrastructure in an area plagued by a cancer risk four times the national average.
In December 2019, Valero Energy and the Texas-based company Plains All American Pipeline announced a joint venture that would run for 49 miles, directly south out of Memphis with a long eastward curve through Mississippi. At the end of the line, Byhalia would connect to an existing pipeline, carrying as much as $21 million dollars worth of oil a day to the gulf of Mexico.
Soon after this route for the pipeline was announced, a representative of the two companies said "We took, basically, a point of least resistance." The first stretch of the pipeline crosses through the historically Black Memphis neighborhoods of Boxtown, Whitehaven, and Westwood.
Justin J. Pearson, born in Westwood and home through the COVID-19 pandemic, learned about the pipeline through a Facebook post on the Mitchell High School alumni page written by south Memphis resident, Kathy Robinson.
Kathy's post began: "Box town is 99% black with a high % of home ownership…They want to build an oil pipeline through this historic neighborhood. Why?"
Seeing this post in his high school facebook group struck Justin by surprise. He says that he wouldn't have otherwise thought of his community as victims of environmental racism. "I didn't know this was happening and so I'm really fortunate and grateful," Justin said, "There was shock about not knowing, and then there was a realization that this was a deeply personal issue that we have affecting our community. Even our high school is only about three or four blocks away from one of the places where the pipeline would cross."
"There was a realization that this was a deeply personal issue that we have affecting our community. Even our high school is only about three or four blocks away from one of the places where the pipeline would cross."
Justin later met Ms. Robinson along with several other Mitchell High School alumni at an October community meeting about the pipeline. Together, they formed Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP).
In order to begin construction, oil companies must first acquire easements and permits. An easement is an agreement in which a property owner allows another party to use their land in some way. According to Memphis publication MLK50, the easements that the Byhalia pipeline seeks would allow "constructing, laying, maintaining, operating, inspecting, altering, replacing, reconstructing, patrolling (by surface or air), protecting, or removing a liquid hydrocarbon."
Residents report that as early as 2018 — before the official announcement of the Byhalia plans — representatives of the oil companies had approached them to strike these land deals.
Joseph Owens, a 59-year-old security guard, refused a one-time offer of $3,000 that would have allowed the companies to build and service the pipeline on his property. Owens called the payment "pennies and peanuts." The companies offered Jeffrey Alexander, a city of Memphis employee, just $4,700 for the permanent rights to operate outside his home. When Owens and Alexander rejected counter-offers, Valero and Plains All American Pipeline took them to court, attempting to win the easements with legal force.
Justin J. Pearson and MCAP have been looking for other residents fighting similar lawsuits. "It's unlikely they have any attorney representation. It's unlikely they know what the heck is going on and what to do," Pearson said. After his organization checked in with 600 homes in the area, Pearson realized that "not a single person knew what was happening."
"We learned that our laws are built to the benefit of the corporation," Pearson said, "not the individual private landowners."
That's partially due to the permitting process that Byhalia has pursued. A Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP12) through the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) "is often used by pipeline companies to fast track projects and cut out the public from the decision making process," reports the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Other pipelines that have drawn national attention, like the Keystone XL, made use of the same permit.
Pearson sees it as a loophole that has allowed the companies to exploit his neighbors, "You don't have to do any intentional work to hear what the community is saying or include any environmental justice impacts."
"This battle isn't just about people who are living and drinking the water now. It is thinking more generationally, what is going to happen 25, 50 years from now to this pipeline?"
US Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) agrees, writing in a January letter to the ACOE "While the Clean Water Act (CWA) authorizes the Corps to issue NWPs to streamline the permitting process for activities the Corps determines will have minimal adverse environmental effects, I struggle to see how the proposed Byhalia Connection fits that criteria." A recent report by chemical hydrogeologist Douglas J. Cosler found that a single pound of crude oil could contaminate 25 million gallons of water.
In a response to Cohen's letter, the ACOE cited a recent Trump administration policy that limited the government's ability to regulate construction around water. This Navigable Waters Protections Rule excluded the ACOE's "regulatory jurisdiction over groundwater or discharges into groundwater."
That's important because the city of Memphis sits on top of an underground reservoir holding 57 trillion gallons of fresh water. According to the US Geological Survey, Memphis and Shelby County make up one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world that relies exclusively on ground water for municipal supply. Rep. Cohen's environmental concerns stem from the pipeline's proximity to the Memphis Sand Aquifer.
But the Memphis Sand Aquifer is underground, and in this case, the ACOE's jurisdiction doesn't extend below the surface. In early February, the ACOE granted the NWP12, removing one hurdle on the path to Byhalia's construction.
Pearson says that "this battle isn't just about people who are living and drinking the water now. It is thinking more generationally, what is going to happen 25, 50 years from now to this pipeline?"
That question has caught the attention of environmental justice advocates in Memphis and beyond. It's a question at the heart of a meeting on February 23, when the Memphis city council holds a vote that could deny the Byhalia Connection Pipeline access to the city's land.
Back in 2016, the city of Memphis sent 12,000 bottles of water to help Flint, MI recover from one of the nation's worst environmental disasters. Pearson says that this moment sticks out in his mind: "We literally bottled up Memphis' drinking water to send to Flint, and now we're going to risk our water for a private, out-of-state company's profit. Why? Why are we doing this and to whose benefit?"