Memphis pipeline project violates Civil Rights Act

EPA must act as state refuses to consider environmental justice

Justin Pearson, a lead organizer with Memphis Community Against Pollution, speaks at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis aimed at stopping construction of the Byhalia Pipeline proposed in the city’s southwest. (© SteveJonesPhotography.com)

We’ve submitted an administrative complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on behalf of Memphis Community Against Pollution.

The complaint alleges the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC, violated Title VI by making a permit decision that disproportionately burdens Black communities in southwest Memphis without a substantial justification for doing so. Specifically, the permit authorizes construction of a crude oil pipeline over the drinking water source and through Black communities that already bear the health and financial burdens of an oil refinery, retired coal plant, active fracked gas plant, wastewater treatment plant, and many other industrial facilities. 

“In their permitting processes, TDEC has to, by law, consider what the impacts would be to communities like Boxtown and Westwood because those are the very communities that have been disproportionately impacted by racist practices and permitting practices for decades,” said Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of citizen group MCAP, in MLK50. “By not doing so, it is continuing a legacy of injustice that our [civil rights] laws don’t allow.”

The complaint further alleges that TDEC violates Title VI on a continuing and ongoing basis by adopting a policy that it cannot and will not consider the environmental justice impacts of its water quality permitting decisions, including whether those decisions disproportionately burden communities on the basis of race.

“We can’t look at this pipeline in isolation,” said Managing Attorney Amanda Garcia. “One look around the neighborhood it’s proposed in and you can easily see how much industry residents already dealing with. For the state not to take this context into consideration for this project is more than careless, it’s illegal.”

Our Title VI complaint follows a letter SELC sent to TDEC at the end of April on behalf of MCAP, Protect Our Aquifer, and the Sierra Club, demanding that the state agency revoke the state water quality permit and certification because the applicant, Byhalia Pipeline, withheld crucial facts during the permit process. The state agency’s policy of not considering disproportionate impacts and environmental justice in its permitting decisions, even when deep concerns about those issues are raised in numerous public comments, is a further violation of Title VI. 

EPA should ensure that TDEC revokes the discriminatory permit for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, and develops a Title VI-compliant policy for evaluating future permits.

We can't look at this pipeline in isolation. ”

—Managing Attorney Amanda Garcia

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