Memphis-area Congressman leads letter asking Biden to re-evaluate Byhalia permit

U.S. Representative Steve Cohen and actress Cybil Shepherd, a Memphis resident, were in the crowd at Sunday's rally against the Byhalia Pipeline featuring Rev. Dr. William J. Barber.  (© (Rep. Steve Cohen))

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who represents Memphis, led an effort with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to send a letter from 28 members of Congress asking the Biden administration to re-evaluate using a fast-track permit for the Byhalia Pipeline.

Proposed by Valero Energy Corp. and Plains All American Pipeline L.P., the Byhalia pipeline would cut through several Black neighborhoods in southwest Memphis, where cancer risk is four times the national average, and put local streams, wetlands, and groundwater already threatened by multiple polluting industrial facilities at even greater risk.

Memphis is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world that gets all of its municipal drinking water from an underground aquifer. The Memphis Sand aquifer is a huge reservoir of fresh water, storing an estimated 57 trillion gallons of water beneath Shelby County. It is part of a network underlying seven states.

The letter, signed by Cohen, Ocasio-Cortez and 26 other members of Congress, asks the administration to reconsider the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to use the nationwide permitting process — a less thorough approach than an individual permit, with no options for public input — for the Byhalia Pipeline.

“The nationwide permitting process allows applicants to obtain fast-track permission to cross rivers and streams, avoiding public input as well as project-specific scrutiny of environmental harm,” the Congress members wrote in the letter. “While such a process might be appropriate if a project truly has limited impact, the threat to communities wrought by new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure makes the Corps’ use of NWP-12 an inappropriate tool, particularly in a growing climate crisis.”

In addition to the letter from members of Congress, the Biden administration received two other letters opposing the permitting of the pipeline: one from a group of 80 organizations, including SELC, and another from 70 actors, activists, novelists, artists and religious and cultural leaders.

Pipeline companies have a long history of leaks and spills, which are exceedingly expensive and difficult to clean up. Plains All American alone experienced ten oil spills between June 2004 and September 2007, which totaled about 273,420 gallons of oil.

“We applaud the congressional leaders who clearly recognize that we need a better process in place to protect vulnerable Americans from unnecessary and risky pipeline projects,” said Amanda Garcia, Director of SELC’s Tennessee Office. “The Biden administration has made it a priority to put environmental justice at the forefront of its response to the climate crisis, and we believe this project is a prime example of why federal action is required to protect communities that have been taken advantage by oil and gas interests for far too long.”

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