News | March 10, 2021

How the Byhalia Pipeline would have impacted Memphis

Early rallies brought various groups together to stop the unwanted and unneeded gas pipeline project in Southwest Memphis.

Byhalia Pipeline: What was going on?

Two companies, Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. and Valero Energy Corporation, were trying to build a pipeline through southwest Memphis neighborhoods to transport crude oil for export.

The Byhalia Pipeline route through Boxtown

Boxtown is a Black community that was formed in the second half of the 19th century and named after formerly enslaved people who used scraps of wood and metal from train boxcars to build their homes. It remains a predominantly Black neighborhood today.

How the Byhalia Pipeline would have impacted the community

The Davis Wellfield, an area where water is pumped from the aquifer, supplies drinking water to areas of southwest Memphis, including Westwood, Boxtown, and White Chapel. MLGW has established Wellhead Protection Zones to guard the wellfield from potential contamination, but despite these precautions, the Memphis pipeline was slated to plow through Wellhead Protection Zone 2. Because crude oil is known to contain cancer-causing hazardous chemicals such as benzene, Memphis residents would have been at risk if a leak or spill occurred near a breach in the aquifer’s clay layer. One pound of crude oil can contaminate 25,000,000 gallons of groundwater.

The Byhalia Pipeline route would have gone through predominantly Black communities in Memphis, namely, Boxtown. Many Black Memphians were outraged after hearing a representative connected to the project describe the initial decision to route the Byhalia Pipeline through South Memphis as a “point of least resistance.” The pipeline company claimed that it had the right to take the property of Black landowners, but several landowners fought back in court with pro bono legal assistance from local law firm Burch, Porter & Johnson.

This was not the first time that southwest Memphis residents were forced to bear the risks of environmental pollution. 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.” Once again, local residents were faced shouldering environmental and health risks that they did not ask for, but together they built the social and political power needed to stand up to these companies.

What could have gone wrong if the Byhalia Pipeline was built?

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. Groundwater from the Memphis Sand Aquifer is pumped up to the surface and distributed all over the city. Much of the aquifer is protected by a layer of clay between the groundwater and the surface, but recent studies show the clay layer has several known and suspected breaches, holes, and leaks. Plus, some areas surrounding Memphis that are not protected by the clay layer are considered recharge zones for the aquifer where surface water soaks through the soil to replace the water that is pumped out.

The Byhalia Pipeline route was a threat to drinking water sources

The proposed route of the Byhalia Pipeline crossed a number of areas designated for special protections to preserve drinking water quality.

The planned route for the Memphis pipeline would have passed near suspected breaches in the protective layer of clay in Memphis and crosses over the aquifer’s recharge zone in Mississippi.

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. Plains estimated that another spill in California in 2015 cost the company $390 million to clean up the oil, cover damages to natural resources, and fund settlements, fines, and fees. Restoration of the affected area is still ongoing nearly six years later.

Although Plains representatives have said that well maintained pipelines can last for decades without issues, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has recorded over 4,000 oil and fuel spills just since 2010. Even though pipeline companies are now required to install leak detection systems, these do not always work as planned. Only about 7% of the recorded spills were discovered because of leak detection systems.

Spills could occur for any number of reasons, including faulty construction, defective materials, poor maintenance, seismic activity, or someone simply digging in the wrong place without calling first. Alarmingly, the proposed Byhalia Pipeline route existed within a known earthquake zone. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is the most seismically active area in the central and eastern United States, yet the companies still planned to construct an underground pipeline through residential areas over a crucial drinking water source.

How Memphians defeated the Byhalia Pipeline

Listen to Season 5 of SELC’s podcast, Broken Ground, and hear the story of how a Black community’s efforts, along with their allies, stopped the crude oil pipeline and protected their health, land, and drinking water.

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Eric Hilt

Senior Communications Manager (TN)

Focus Areas: Forests and Public Lands, Biomass

Phone: 615-921-9470
Email: [email protected]