Lesson 1: Nobody Asks
This is Boxtown, a neighborhood in southwest Memphis founded by formerly enslaved people who put down deep roots and residents who cherish their ties to this land. It’s also a neighborhood that’s seen decades of government neglect, while more and more polluting industries moved into the area. So, when the community first heard about plans for a crude oil pipeline that would cut through their neighborhood, they wanted to know more.
Broken Ground Season 5: Episode 1
June 29, 2022
HOST: On the surface, this is the story of an oil pipeline that seemed inevitable …
KATHY ROBINSON: My heart actually dropped. I was just like, this is going to be built.
HOST: … and the grassroots group of Memphians that rose to fight it.
KIZZY JONES: We are David in this Goliath fight.
HOST: Deeper down, it’s the story of an ancient aquifer, the source of Memphis’s sweet water, buried hundreds of feet below the city’s streets, hidden under parks, landfills and coal ash ponds.
SCOTTIE FITZGERALD: Oh my God, you have never had water. And when you drink it, it’s like it’s been in the refrigerator for days.
WARD ARCHER: You don’t know how good it is until you go somewhere else.
HOST: But this is also the story of Southwest Memphis … and a place called Boxtown in particular … a community founded by formerly enslaved people who put down deep roots, lived off the land, and took good care of one another amid decades of government neglect.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: People just so content. They don’t mess with nobody, nobody mess with them. Yeah.
HOST: And It’s the story of a fertile bend in the Mississippi, transformed into an industrial cradle with fish now too toxic to eat, and air that, depending on the day, makes residents turn right back around and go inside.
TERRANCE: Long as that smoke stacks is in this neighborhood, nobody don’t care about that. If it’s affecting the old Black people in this neighborhood? Who care?
HOST: And, ultimately, it’s the story of the fight for environmental justice that now drives a new generation of activists and their allies.
JUSTIN J. PEARSON: Dr. King said this: the movement lives or dies in Memphis.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(BROKEN GROUND THEME MUSIC COMES IN)
HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast from the Southern Environmental Law Center. Here at Broken Ground, we dig up environmental stories in the South and introduce you to the people at the heart of them. I’m Leanna First-Arai, an environmental journalist and your new host. This season, we’re focusing on a single story: the fight against the Byhalia Connection crude oil pipeline in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve been reporting on environmental justice issues for a few years now – I’m also a teacher – and I covered the early part of the pipeline controversy in 2020 when I was living in Memphis.
(BROKEN GROUND THEME MUSIC FADES OUT)
(WATER LAPPING SOUNDS)
HOST: Nestled along the banks of the Mississippi on the western edge of the state, Memphis’s identity has been shaped by the river.
NARRATOR: Long before the coming of the railroads, the Mississippi river was a main artery of travel.
HOST: And it has always drawn fishermen like Warren and Teresa Johnson …
WARREN JOHNSON: This river? This river going to talk to you. It’s got its own way of speaking to you. And when it talk, you get to stepping. You better respect it. It’s a good neighbor to have.
HOST: But when you think of the city today …
(BARBECUE SIZZLE SOUNDS)
HOST: I’ll bet you think of a few other things. Like Memphis barbecue. You know, pulled pork … or ribs with that tangy-sweet dry rub that’s made it famous. Any promotional travel video will tell you.
NARRATOR: Visit Memphis and be part of one of the greatest debates of all time. Who’s got the best barbecue in Memphis.
HOST: Of course, if you’re a basketball fan, maybe you think of the Memphis Grizzlies.
(FANS SHOUTING “WHOOP THAT TRICK”)
HOST: And, whether or not you’ve ever heard of Beale Street, music must surely come to mind.
NARRATOR: It’s a long way from W.C. Handy to Elvis Presley, but the Memphis sound is big enough for all.
HOST: Depending on how old you are, and what you grew up turning up on the radio, you might think of Aretha Franklin … BB King … Three six mafia … Elvis Presley … or Young Dolph. So much of what we consider “American culture” has roots in Memphis.
HOST: One truth behind this blues sound … and what grew out of it … is that there is a lot of trauma here — individual trauma, collective trauma, environmental trauma, racial trauma …
WMPS REPORTER: Dr. Martin Luther King’s massive downtown march on Memphis is now underway.
HOST: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior came here in 1968 in solidarity with the Memphis Sanitation Workers. They were striking for better working conditions after two Black men were crushed to death on the job.
WMPS REPORTER: Many of the demonstrators are carrying the sign, “I am a man.”
HOST: And, it was here in Memphis during that strike when Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. I mention all this because the Sanitation Workers’ strike is often cited by scholars and activists as the origin of the Environmental Justice movement in the U.S. That’s because it drew national attention to how Black people often live and work around the most polluted and dangerous places.
In this season of Broken Ground, we’re going to get you up to speed on how Memphians continue to fight environmental racism half a century after the movement began here. We’ll be following resistance to the Byhalia Connection oil pipeline – which, for good reason, former Vice President Al Gore would eventually call …
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: … a reckless, racist, rip off!
CHANDRA TAYLOR-SAWYER: It was so blatant. The route of the pipeline was going directly through an African-American community, one that is 97% African-American.
HOST: That’s attorney Chandra Taylor-Sawyer, head of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Environmental Justice Initiative.
CHANDRA TAYLOR-SAWYER: It was a decision like “these are people who don’t have a lot of political power, so we’re going to just try to run over them.” That happens so much. It is like, the backbone of where we see environmental injustice.
HOST: Chandra and her colleagues at SELC eventually become deeply involved in the Byhalia pipeline fight. But first things first … Let’s back up to December of 2019, when two companies – Plains All American and Valero Energy Corporation – first announced that they would be building the Byhalia Connection pipeline.
FOX 13 NEWS ANCHOR: The Byhalia Connection pipeline would run from Memphis to Marshall county.
HOST: I was living and reporting in Memphis at the time, so I covered the early part of the story for two local non-profit newspapers – Southerly … and MLK50. If you’re a regular follower of climate news, you probably know that oil and gas pipelines have become a rallying point for environmentalists and climate advocates, a sort of physical manifestation of climate denial and corporate greed. Protests against pipelines are a place where civil rights, human rights and the climate crisis converge.
(CROWD CHANTS “WATER IS LIFE!”)
HOST: And pipeline fights aren’t easy or quick. It took six solid years of activism and legal action to defeat the Atlantic Coast pipeline.
CBS 17 ANCHOR: A stunning announcement from one of the country’s largest utility companies, Duke Energy of Charlotte and Virginia-based Dominion Energy announced they are canceling the controversial Atlantic Coast pipeline.
HOST: That pipeline would have cut through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, impacting Black and Native American communities, among others. You can learn about that fight in the first season of Broken Ground.
Other pipeline fights have been so contentious, the police have responded with violence.
AMY GOODMAN/DEMOCRACY NOW: Security has some kind of gas. People are being pepper-sprayed.
PROTESTORS: We’re not leaving! We’re not leaving!
HOST: So I was on high alert when I first caught word of a new high-pressure crude oil pipeline proposed to run through Southwest Memphis.
ABC NEWS ANCHOR: It’s a first up close look, I should say, at a controversial plan to build a 45 mile underground oil pipeline between Memphis and Marshall county, Mississippi.
HOST: Here’s an early story from the local ABC News affiliate.
ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Supporters say the proposed route will have a limited impact through neighborhoods, but first there will be several community meetings over the next two months in those impacted neighborhoods.
HOST: So on a Saturday morning in January 2020, I drove out to one of those community meetings … just over state lines, in Southaven, Mississippi. I should explain here that Memphis is tucked so deep in the far southwest corner of Tennessee that you can cross a street and be in Mississippi, or cross a bridge and be in Arkansas.
LEANNA FIRST-ARAI: Hey, would you be able to, explain just kind of the, the layout of the connection?
PIPELINE REP: I just don’t know how far on this map, because I’m not sure of the scale…
HOST: Pipeline representatives – like the one we just heard from – had all flown in from Texas. They handed out glossy brochures touting pipeline safety. There were cheese and cracker plates, cookie plates, fruit plates, you name it. They also had products on display, like disposable diapers, leggings, and household cleaning supplies, as examples of the everyday stuff, quote unquote, made possible by oil. I remember how much that bothered me, because in a room full of folks who may have legitimate concerns about crude oil whooshing under their garden beds and around the edge of their children’s swing sets, focusing on our collective need for consumer products felt … like pure gaslighting. Some people who showed up that day – the majority of whom were white – wanted to know exactly how close the pipeline would be to their family land. A couple had concerns about the city’s drinking water. But — to be honest — I was sort of surprised by how low-key it all felt. And the way the pipeline reps talked about it, it was like it was happening no matter what. Listen to this guy:
PIPELINE REP: The project is imminent. We are going to construct.
HOST: If the project was indeed “imminent” and no one was really bothered by it … then I figured maybe there wasn’t actually much of a story here. UNTIL … I found myself at another meeting, this time in a packed chapel on a hill, in a neighborhood called Boxtown ….
MOZELL SMITH: This neighborhood always get the brunt of whatever the other neighborhoods in this city don’t want.
HOST: This is Boxtown resident Ms. Mozell Smith.
MOZELL SMITH: No one comes to the community and asks how do we feel about a pipeline coming through our neighborhood? Everybody would say, no, we don’t want this.
HOST: As I stood there listening to Ms. Mozell and her neighbors in White’s Chapel church, it was clear that the pipeline had really touched a nerve in this neighborhood. But I wouldn’t FULLY understand why until I got to know a man named Samuel Hardaway.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: The way I look at it, I love it. I love this area.
HOST: Mr. Hardaway was born and raised in Boxtown.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Let’s take a tour and I take you guys around.
HOST: He’s 71, tall, thin, and soft-spoken. A real gentle giant.
(CAR REVVING SOUNDS)
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Excuse me while I’m driving fast.
HOST: Though – I have to admit – he has a bit of a led foot.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: I mean, just my nature. I always loved fast cars.
HOST: Mr Hardaway worked for the railroad for 35 years, and he’s one of the folks I featured in my first article about the Byhalia Connection pipeline. He first caught my attention at that White’s Chapel meeting …
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Oh girl …
HOST: … where he was pretty upset.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: … and I laugh about it sometimes because I say, well, uh, out of the people there, why’d she come up to me, you know?
LEANNA FIRST-ARAI: Well, you asked so many good questions basically none of which were answered in that moment. And I could tell, you know, there started to be a little bit of steam coming out of your ears.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: It It was. It was. I’ll be honest with you, it was. And that’s why I said, well, then I’m not going to leave this. I’m going to get more and more deeply involved. And I was just like a foot soldier. I was putting up signs, talking to people and everything.
HOST: The community Mr. Hardaway was so eager to protect is one of Memphis’s longest standing Black neighborhoods. It’s got one of the city’s oldest Black churches – that’s White’s Chapel. And it’s also home to T.O. Fuller State Park, the very first state park open to Black people east of the Mississippi.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: This is very interesting.
LEANNA FIRST-ARAI: Yeah.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: There’s a lot of history here.
HOST: This is a community founded by formerly enslaved people, who settled where they could under Jim Crow segregation – in this case, right up along the railroad tracks, which actually helps explain how Boxtown got its name.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: It started with the boxcars. And then people started building homes.
HOST: Some early residents actually repurposed abandoned boxcars as houses. Others salvaged the wood and used it to build homes from scratch.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: That was back when the slaves were free, back in the 1800’s. So this place has been around a long time.
HOST: In part, that has to do with just how RICH the land in this area is. Boxtown sits on a high flat hill overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River, at the far southwest edge of Memphis.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: They called it Chickasaw Bluff.
HOST: For millennia, the gentle curves in the river carved out bluffs like this, creating a unique habitat ripe for life. High above the Mississippi, the area had everything: temperate climate, fertile soil, and water close but not too close. Before Boxtown was founded, Indigenous peoples like the Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw lived here on and off for nearly a thousand years. In fact, T.O. Fuller State Park is home to the Chucalissa Indian Village historic site.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: If you look, you can see still a lot of old trails that the Indians walked.
HOST: Mister Hardaway and his eleven siblings walked those trails themselves as children. Back then, Boxtown had dirt roads and outhouses. There weren’t any streetlights or even city buses servicing the area. Technically it wasn’t even a part of Memphis yet. So, there’s a deeply outdoor nature to Mr. Hardaway’s childhood memories. He spent a LOT of time exploring this land, this forest, this bluff.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: We used to play a game, find the tallest tree and who could climb to the top. I climbed so high one time I saw the Memphis-Arkansas bridge and I didn’t do it no more.
HOST: But the land around Boxtown wasn’t just a playground … it provided real sustenance. People grew fruits and vegetables, kept hogs, and tapped the earth for freshwater.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Anything that you can buy in the store today, we grew it. If we didn’t grow it, the neighbors grew it, or someone down the street grew it.
HOST: The gardens Mr. Hardaway is talking about were common in Boxtown and nearby neighborhoods. Almost every resident we spoke with mentioned one.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: And nobody came up short during the winter time. It was a whole lot of sharing.
HOST: One of the places Mr. Hardaway made sure to take us on his tour of Boxtown was his family home.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: This is my home house, that was built back in the fifties. But it’s been remodeled since.
HOST: The home house is a tidy, cream-colored one-story cottage. It sits on two acres, with woods behind. There’s a nice screened-in gazebo here, perfect for gathering.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: One thing beautiful about this, we not going to let it go anywhere. Because we are the second generation, third generation is going to be left up to them, to take care of everything.
HOST: That’s one unique thing about Boxtown. homeownership rates are REALLY high here. While around 75 percent of white households in the U.S. own the home they live in, racist housing policies and redlining have limited Black home ownership nationally to a much lower number – about 44 percent. But … here in Boxtown, over 60 PERCENT of residents own their own homes – even though half of the residents earn less than $25,000 a year.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: People just so content. They don’t mess with nobody, nobody mess with them.
HOST: Of course, Mr. Hardaway is just ONE man with fond memories of growing up in Boxtown. We wanted to know how other folks felt too. So, ever the gracious host, Mr. Hardaway helped gather a group of other longtime Boxtown residents to speak with us.
(SOUND OF PEOPLE CHATTING)
HOST: Ms. Brenda Odell was one of about a dozen folks who met us in a boomy community room at the state park.
BRENDA WALLACE ODELL: My brother said to me, I don’t remember going to the grocery store as a child except to buy meal, flour and sugar. And he said, we grew everything. And then he said, but sister, we were poor. And I said, we were? And we didn’t realize!
HOST: Residents at this impromptu meetup came up during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and during a period when Memphis city limits seemed to be expanding in every direction EXCEPT to incorporate Boxtown. In fact, in 1960, the Memphis Housing Authority director advised AGAINST annexing Boxtown, describing it as quote, “haphazardly developed to the point where no one would want to go in and invest a dime.” Daniel Lewis was just a kid back then.
DANIEL LEWIS: And my first awareness of politics, was noticing when I was probably less than 10 years old. About every two years you could count on the potholes being filled in and maybe a little bit more gravel put down.
HOST: Despite the occasional acknowledgment during election season, residents say Boxtown was largely left to develop on its own, at least for a while.
MARCELLA SHEPHERD: And we actually lived a real sheltered life down here.
HOST: Here’s Ms. Marcella Shepherd, former president of the Boxtown Neighborhood Association.
MARCELLA SHEPHERD: We had our stores, we had a service station, mechanic shops, so we had everything we needed down here. So we were really sheltered and protected from a lot of elements from the outside world.
HOST: Memphis finally annexed Boxtown in 1971, promising to bring city services like trash pickup and infrastructure upgrades. But then for an entire decade Memphis did virtually NOTHING to fulfill that promise. Residents had to organize, and threaten to sue the city of Memphis for neglect not just once but TWICE.
LENOICE WHITE: We suffered taxation without representation. That was a big problem. That’s where all the lawsuits came in at. We didn’t have, uh, roads. We didn’t have sewers. We didn’t have street lights, but the tax bills certainly found their way to our houses.
HOST: The man you just heard is Lenoice White. The White family is arguably one of Boxtown’s oldest. And White’s Chapel where that earlier pipeline meeting took place? That’s his family.
LENOICE WHITE: So we’ve been in this community probably more than 200 years. This is where I’m going to be. I’m probably about 250 steps from the cemetery, (laughter) so when my time is no longer on this earth, they won’t have very far to take me to my final resting place. And I know that’ll be right around the corner from where my house is right now on Boxtown Road.
HOST: After our meeting, we caught up with Lenoice at his home, just a short walk from the family cemetery.
LENOICE WHITE: I got three brothers back there, mom and dad, aunts and uncles. They used to live all, all this area here that was populated all around here. All those people are back there now resting.
HOST: Lenoice’s home is a five-bedroom brick house that he built here on family land 20-some years ago.
LENOICE WHITE: It was 350 steps from my back door to my mom’s front door. And so I love that, you know, I could, you know, it was just an easy thing to run up there and check on her.
HOST: His mom has since passed away, but his daughter now lives two doors over, and his cousin lives between them. When Lenoice first heard about plans to have the Byhalia pipeline cut through Boxtown – about a mile and a half from his home – he says he wasn’t actually all that concerned for himself.
LENOICE WHITE: You know, personally, I thought being here was going to keep me safe, but you know, it’s not necessarily about me. Like Dr. King said, ‘We all inextricably tied together.’ You know? So what affects you down the road eventually will affect me.
HOST: Lenoice White has dreams for his neighborhood, and none of them involve a pipeline.
LENOICE WHITE: I, one day, see Boxtown as a Renaissance that’ll feature houses like this and kids again running up and down the neighborhood and, and having fun and, you know, land ownership, home ownership. That’s what I’d like to see as far as, you know, um, just, just a quiet community where, you know, just the – it’ll be like Germantown West.
HOST: Germantown, for context, is a wealthy white suburb east of Memphis. Ironically, it’s actually where the pipeline would’ve bulldozed through, had the planners decided to draw a straight line. But the reason we’re here is — they didn’t. Instead they decided to shoot south through the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Walker Homes, West Junction, Boxtown, and Westwood – before taking a hard 90 degree turn to reach the pipeline’s final destination in Mississippi. And Roshun Austin was not surprised.
ROSHUN AUSTIN: We made a whole bunch of bad decisions as cities in the U.S. on how, what growth should look like.
HOST: Roshun is head of a community development organization in South Memphis, and an urban anthropologist by training.
ROSHUN AUSTIN: They’re used to just like all other companies in the U.S. taking interstates and pipelines and chemical plants through neighborhoods where you have the most vulnerable people. Sometimes the people were already selling there and the industry said, you know, it’s just Black people. We can build the interstate and our plants, and convince them that this is a good thing. And then sometimes the industry was there and it was the land that was available to Blacks.
HOST: If we’re going to understand the undue burden a crude oil pipeline would place on Boxtown, we need to know what exists here already – and at what cost. [PAUSE] And there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned to you yet about Boxtown’s location — its proximity to heavy industry. As an outsider, I can say that the density of polluting facilities in these few square miles certainly stands out.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: I’m trying to go back here. Give y’all a better view.
LEANNA FIRST-ARAI: Wow. This is quite the spot. This is kind of like a canyon almost.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Yeah.
HOST: Back on the bluff with Mr. Hardaway, we look west towards the Mississippi River. Down at the bottom of the bluff below us there are train tracks, and between those and the river lies a swath of lowland sprinkled with factories, and agricultural fields. In some ways it feels counterintuitive – like in an alternate reality, you might see wading birds diving for fish here. But as along so much of the Mississippi, instead, you see industrial facilities. Mr. Hardaway recalls the slow creep of heavy industry here, businesses drawn by the proximity to the river.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Steam plant was the only plant down here. It was just down here by itself for a long time burning coal.
HOST: The three red-and-white smokestacks of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired steam plant were the first Mr. Hardaway remembers poking through the tree-topped skyline. The plant came online in 1959, and came to power the entire region. If you lived in western Tennessee before 2018, it’s likely that a significant portion of your power came from this plant. And whether you knew it or not, Boxtown’s air was your dumping ground.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: All three of those stacks had smoke coming out of them, you know. It was dark, it was dark black smoke. Just like you burn coal. Back then, you really didn’t think that much about it at all. You know, it was just down here by itself on the river.
HOST: TVA retired its coal-powered plant four years ago and replaced it with one powered by so-called natural gas – which is really made up of polluting methane. That’s now down the street, a stone’s throw from the original coal plant.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Then you got Nucor down there.
HOST: That’s the Nucor steel plant.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: You got two or three more industrials down there.
HOST: An appliance manufacturer, a composting facility, a trucking center.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Also down there, they have, uh, the Memphis Shelby county’s sewage treatment plant. And it’s pretty good size. That’s probably what you were smelling.
HOST: With all of that industry wedged between Boxtown’s bluff and the river, there’s a distinctive, metallicky, industrial, unnatural smell that hits your nose sometimes. It’s hard to describe, because it’s not always the same.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: It’s something about how the wind be blowing, you know. Even for President Island, you can get odor from President Island.
HOST: Mr. Hardaway is referring to what used to be the largest island in the Mississippi River, which was converted to a twelve hundred-acre industrial park in the mid 20th century. It’s just north of Boxtown. President’s Island is home to even MORE industry, from pesticide producers and chemical companies to corn millers and cement manufacturers. All pretty smelly stuff. And there’s yet ANOTHER polluting facility nearby that Mr. Hardaway took us to see.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Now, as you can see, this is Valero right here.
LEANNA FIRST-ARAI: That’s a thick smoke coming out of that one …
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Yup.
LEANNA FIRST-ARAI: … stack right there.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: All of this is Valero. This is where, Byhalia pipeline, this is where it’s going to be connecting it. And, and run through the pipeline to wherever they was going with it.
HOST: If there’s one industrial facility that came up the most from residents during our interviews, it was the Valero oil refinery. It’s been here since 1941. Though its ownership has changed over the years… according to Ms. Scottie Fitzgerald, its smell has always been…distinct
SCOTTIE FITZGERALD: You could smell it, it smelled like old rotten eggs. In our whole neighborhood, you could smell it. You knew when you were getting close to us.
HOST: Ms. Scottie grew up in the adjacent neighborhood of Walker Homes, just east of Boxtown and directly south of the refinery.
SCOTTIE FITZGERALD: People would, uh, make jokes when they came down from Milwaukee to visit us or Chicago and they would come in, well, we knew we were getting close to you, we smell the eggs. So, you know, it’s, it’s kind of funny, but it’s not. And all those people that stayed on that road that you could just directly look over, most of them are left with cancer.
HOST: She’s referring to the residential street closest to the refinery.
SCOTTIE FITZGERALD: When Helen died, one of my schoolmates, when she died, that was the first for hearing somebody so young with cancer.
HOST: That was in high school. But then a neighbor was diagnosed, then another neighbor, then another.
SCOTTIE FITZGERALD: It hit me when we got older: so many women developing breast cancer.
HOST: Eventually, the miasma found its way into Ms. Scottie’s home. Her mother had a mastectomy. And Scottie herself survived both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Researchers are cautious about tying individual cancer cases like Ms. Scottie’s to specific polluting facilities. But here’s what we can say: studies show that people living near heavy industry have a greater risk of illness. When it comes to Southwest Memphis, cancer rates are FOUR times higher than the national average. And the life expectancy is significantly lower.
- CHUNRONG JIA: In the U.S., the average year life expectancy is about 78.8 years old, right? This community actually is 10 years less. It’s only sixty eight.
HOST: This is Dr. Chunrong Jia an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Memphis.
- CHUNRONG JIA: My research area is in air pollution and the associated health effects.
HOST: We met Doctor Jia in Riverview Park, just north of Boxtown and about a mile from the Valero oil refinery. There’s an air pollution monitor here that he’s used for his research, and we wanted to see it. Honestly, it’s not much to look at – sort of a mini version of a corner mailbox but all gray. It sits behind a chain link fence at the top of a hill between an elementary and middle school. Doctor Jia has crunched the data from monitoring stations like this and he’s brought along a series of maps to show us what he’s found. One map shows the location of polluting facilities like Valero. Another shows income levels and a third shows cancer rates. The combined results for the neighborhood we’re standing in are jaw dropping.
- CHUNRONG JIA: All these health indicators, almost the worst percentiles in this country and in the state.
HOST: On his chart, he uses Germantown as a control. It’s that wealthier, whiter Memphis community a half-hour east of here that Lenoice White mentioned. There, the national cancer risk percentile is low: only 8 percent. Compare that to the cancer risk here in Riverview …
- CHUNRONG JIA: Yeah, the percentile is 91% percentile, that means it’s on the top 10% cancer risk.
HOST: In other words, people in this community – including the children attending the schools right here near the air monitor – their risk of getting cancer is higher than it is for people living in the vast majority of the United States. Dr. Jia’s air pollution study wrapped in mid-2019, so the monitor he showed us is no longer collecting any data at this point. And while the county has dozens working air monitors across Memphis – and EPA has one … out in the suburbs – not a single active air monitor is to be found here in Southwest Memphis. Doctor Jia says he was drawn to work in this area BECAUSE of the high concentration of industry here. He wondered …
- CHUNRONG JIA: How this happens and how this would impact health or cause injustice.
HOST: But of course, Dr. Jia is still a scientist, and is careful about distinguishing correlation from causation.
- CHUNRONG JIA: We can only say, I mean, it’s, it’s a disadvantaged community and they have multiple stressors. And if you add another additional environmental burden, you can imagine their health outcomes would become even worse.
HOST: And that … brings us back to the Byhalia pipeline, which would begin just down the street at Valero and pass through Boxtown. In a community that already faces significant environmental burdens … that has had to fight for city recognition … for streetlights … for plumbing … for bus service … the pipeline is yet one more indignity … one more potential threat.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: I read about, you know, oil spills and this and that. And I mean, all that is just like, wow, if you mess up this, you just done messed up everything. I mean, the land, the water. You just done messed up everything. Nature-wise, if you destroy something, you can’t put it back. There’s no way. It’d be there from now on, nothing. Then all of this just a waste.
HOST: It’s that thought of what would be lost that drove Mr. Hardaway and some of the other folks we met in Boxtown to fight the pipeline … To push for answers … To rally their neighbors … To press their elected officials to do something … to do anything.
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: A lot of people kind of dismissed it – well, they gonna do what they want to do. I said, Hey, I’m going down fighting.
HOST: The only problem was, nearly a year into the fight – and in the middle of a pandemic – the pipeline was still coming. But …
SAMUEL HARDAWAY: Soon as things seemed like it was going Byhalia pipeline’s direction, the young people stepped up. They started coming from everywhere, raising a lot of noise and everything. And people started listening, you know? It really got rolling beautiful then.
(BROKEN GROUND THEME MUSIC IN)
HOST: Join us next time on Broken Ground, when a group of younger activists mobilizes to join the fight.
KATHY ROBINSON: I don’t care if I live in Russia. If it comes to Southwest Memphis, I’m fighting for it.
JUSTIN J. PEARSON: We have to fight now. We have to fight now!
KIZZY JONES: it was time for the younger generation to take the torch and kind of carry it.
CREDITS: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment rooted in the South.Broken Ground is produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Pria Mahadevan, Leanna First-Arai, and Jennie Daley, with assistance from Eli Motycka and Ko Bragg. Special thanks to our founding host and former executive producer Claudine Ebeid McElwain. For more information, please visit Broken Ground podcast dot org. If you enjoyed this episode we’d love it if you’d subscribe and write us a review on your favorite podcast app. Thanks for listening.
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