Hydrogeologic report warns of pipeline threats to Memphis drinking water source

Justin Pearson, leader of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, speaks at a rally challenging the sped-up approval of permit for a crude oil pipeline. The proposed path would cross directly over a drinking water source.  (© Kyle Sullivan)

A hydrogeologic report presented to Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) warns that the Byhalia crude oil pipeline proposed by Valero Energy Corp. and Plains All American Pipeline L.P., would pose a significant risk to nearby communities and the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the city’s primary drinking water source.

“The risks to Memphis’s drinking water associated with running this pipeline on its currently propose route are real, and should be of great concern to MLGW as the public water system and primary steward of that drinking water,” said SELC senior attorney George Nolan in a letter to the utility on behalf of Memphis Community Against Pipeline, Protect Our Aquifer and the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Memphis Sand Aquifer supplies Memphis and Shelby County with clean, reliable drinking water — the largest metropolitan area in the world that relies exclusively on groundwater for its municipal water supply.

The report notes that the 24-inch high-pressure pipeline would cross over the aquifer in areas where it is vulnerable to contamination. The proposed route cuts through several Black communities in southwest Memphis, including historic Boxtown, which got its name after formerly enslaved people used scraps of materials and wood from train boxcars to build homes there in the late 1800s. It would also go through MLGW’s Davis wellfield, which provides these nearby communities, like Boxtown, with drinking water.

“MLGW should be doing everything in its power to oppose construction of this pipeline and protect our drinking water and the communities that could be impacted by this project,” said Justin J. Pearson, a lead organizer of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.

Analyzing the known and suspected breaches of the clay layer overlying the aquifer and the groundwater flow direction, the technical analysis found that groundwater contaminated by a pipeline leak could quickly migrate into Memphis’ drinking water source.

“It’s important to remember that crude oil is transported through the pipeline at high pressure,” said Jim Kovarik, Executive Director of Protect Our Aquifer. “A leak wouldn’t involve a slow drip but would resemble a gushing fire hose, spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons through even a small rupture.”

Pipeline leaks are distressingly common. More than 11.5 million gallons of oil have spilled in the United States since 2010. Crude oil spills are very difficult to clean up, particularly when they contaminate groundwater. Crude oil contains many hazardous chemicals that have been found to cause cancer.

In fact, Plains All American has a known history of numerous oil spills, and it reportedly faced criminal charges for spilling about 140,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean as a result of a corroded and ruptured pipeline in 2015.

This pipeline doesn’t only threaten Tennessee. The high-pressure pipeline would also cross through numerous areas in Northern Mississippi designated as important to protecting water source quality.  

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