Victory for Southwest Memphis: Byhalia Pipeline is done

Justin J. 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)

In a tremendous victory for Memphis, Plains All American Pipeline announced that the company was pulling the plug on the controversial Byhalia Pipeline, a proposed 49-mile pipeline that would have gone through several southwest Memphis neighborhoods to transport crude oil for export.

Community groups Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP) and Protect Our Aquifer led the charge to rally intense community opposition against the pipeline, over concerns of threats to local drinking water and further health risks to southwest Memphis communities that have borne disproportionate environmental burdens due to polluting industries.

SELC, representing MCAP, Protect Our Aquifer, and the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, has fought state and federal permits for the project over the past year. SELC also represents MCAP in litigation challenging the pipeline company’s attempt to forcibly take Black landowners’ property through condemnation lawsuits.

“The cancellation of the Byhalia Pipeline is a victory for the people of Southwest Memphis, for the city’s drinking water, and perhaps most monumentally, it is a triumph for environmental justice,” said SELC Tennessee Office Director Amanda Garcia. “We are so inspired by the people of Boxtown, Westwood, and White Chapel, and the work of our amazing partners MCAP and Protect Our Aquifer, for showing what is possible when a community stands together.”

The pipeline route would have gone through predominantly Black communities in Memphis, including Boxtown, named after formerly enslaved people used scraps of wood and metal from train boxcars to build their homes. Many Black Memphians were outraged after hearing a representative connected to the project describe the decision to route the pipeline through South Memphis as a “point of least resistance.” The area has borne the brunt of several environmental harms. A 2013 study identified the area as an air pollution hotspot due to the quantity of industries and emission sources, noting that the cumulative cancer risk in Southwest Memphis “was four times higher than the national average.”

In addition, the pipeline was slated to plow through a drinking water well field in southwest Memphis operated by Memphis Light, Gas and Water. These wells draw from Memphis’ drinking water source, the Memphis Sand Aquifer, and supply drinking water to surrounding communities and nearby businesses. Memphis is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world that gets all of its municipal drinking water from an underground aquifer, and a spill could have devastated this critically important drinking water source.

In response to the pipeline opposition, the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission are considering legislation that would require local approval for the siting pipelines in areas that would threaten to exacerbate existing environmental injustice or harm the city’s drinking water source.

“We urge local officials to continue to listen to the concern of this community and to move ahead with passing these ordinances to protect Memphis from the next pipeline or polluting facility,” said Garcia. “Pulling the plug on the Byhalia Pipeline represents an incredible victory but this pipeline has also shown the city and this whole country how vulnerable Memphis’s drinking water is, and how much southwest Memphis has already endured in terms of environmental injustices.” 

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