News | December 22, 2020

Citizens groups urge federal agency to deny permit for oil pipeline over vital aquifer

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

SELC and a coalition of conservation and citizen groups is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit for an oil pipeline that would cut through several Black communities in southwest Memphis and cross over a municipal wellfield that pumps their drinking water up from the Memphis Sand aquifer.

Valero Energy and Plains All American Pipeline are seeking to use the Corps’ Nationwide Permit 12 to satisfy their obligations under the Clean Water Act. In a letter to the Corps, the groups explain why this would be unlawful.

“The plain language of Nationwide Permit 12 does not allow for the construction of pipelines near drinking water intakes,” said the letter. In addition, the letter urged the Corps to determine that the project is contrary to the public interest because it would unjustly burden vulnerable communities like Boxtown, which already is heavily built up with industrial facilities like a Valero Energy oil refinery and a retired coal plant plagued with extensive coal ash contamination.

“We’re alarmed that, so far, no local, state or federal agency is looking out for the groundwater that serves as Memphis’s drinking water,” said Senior Attorney George Nolan. “If this oil pipeline leaks or spills, as many have done before, it could have devastating effects on the residents that live in southwest Memphis and their drinking water source.”

The letter was sent by SELC, Protect Our Aquifer, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.

Click to view the overall route proposed for the Byhalia Pipeline and a detail of the route through South Memphis in Boxtown. (@SELC)

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, according to the letter.

The proposed Byhalia Pipeline would cross the Davis Wellfield, which Memphis, Light, Gas and Water uses to supply drinking water to several residential areas in southwest Memphis. The high-pressure pipeline would also cross Wellhead Protection Zone 2 and pass near numerous Source Water Protection Areas in Northern Mississippi.

The letter outlined the risks associated with the proposed pipeline, especially considering that it is crossing the most active seismic area in the central and eastern United States.

Read MLK50's coverage of the Boxtown protests here