News | April 2, 2021

Concerned Memphians challenge Corps’ fast-track water permit for Byhalia Pipeline

Corps’ use of Nationwide Permit 12 cuts public out of process for risky crude oil pipeline

SELC, filed suit late yesterday on behalf of Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP)*, Protect Our Aquifer, and the Sierra Club, against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to adopt Nationwide Permit 12 for large oil and gas pipelines in 2017, and to verify that permit’s use 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.

“The Corps has approved this pipeline under Nationwide Permit 12, despite the fact that a court has already determined that the permit is unlawful,” said Amanda Garcia, Director of SELC’s Tennessee Office.

“The lack of environmental analysis and public input under this permit is not appropriate for large crude oil pipelines like Byhalia, which tend to have significant impacts on communities and the environment,” added Patrick Hunter, Senior Attorney with SELC. “Communities who are being asked to bear the disproportionate risks associated with a large oil pipeline have every right to be fully informed and voice their concerns about the ramifications for their quality of life.” 

The use of Nationwide Permit 12 allows the Corps to fast-track a pipeline project without getting input from the communities that will be directly and permanently affected by that particular pipeline. In addition to affecting numerous streams and wetlands, one of the significant community impacts of the Byhalia pipeline is that the path will cut through a drinking water wellfield 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 Black communities and nearby businesses.

“While the Corps may not have known back in 2017 when it adopted Nationwide Permit 12 that the Byhalia pipeline would even be proposed, the agency claims it can look into the future and conclude there’s no problem with any large oil pipeline, in any community,” said Axel Ringe, Water Quality Chair for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This practice amounts to the Corps rubber stamping approvals for massive pipelines, while preventing communities from speaking up when pipelines are subsequently proposed in their own backyards.”

One of the communities in the proposed pipeline path is the historic Boxtown neighborhood in southwest Memphis, which got its name after formerly enslaved people used scraps of materials and wood from train boxcars to build homes there in the late 1800s. The area is already burdened by environmental harms associated with nearby oil refineries, wastewater treatment facilities, industrial manufacturers and power plants. Land agents for the pipeline company reportedly told impacted community members that the chosen route reflected the “point of least resistance.”

“The federal government should be working to protect people in the way of environmental harm, not fast-tracking pipelines that cut directly through communities,” said Justin J. Pearson, a lead organizer of MCAP. “This permit silences the communities most impacted by oil and gas pipelines and fails to protect our drinking water and the streams flowing through our neighborhoods. Southwest Memphis communities deserve better than this.”

Memphis is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. that relies exclusively on groundwater for its drinking water supply. The high-pressure crude oil pipeline crosses the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the main drinking water source for a metro area of more than one-million residents. An oil spill would pose significant risks to the aquifer, which is even more concerning considering Plains All American’s history of pipeline spills. 

“How could any government agency fast-track a high-pressure crude oil pipeline,” said Jim Kovarik, Executive Director of Protect Our Aquifer. “The approval of Nationwide Permit 12 blatantly ignores that this project could potentially jeopardize areas of the aquifer that supply drinking water to our city. The only sensible approach is to be more thoughtful about risks to the citizens of Memphis and our clean drinking water.”

* Memphis Community Against the Pipeline recently incorporated as a nonprofit under Memphis Community Against Pollution. The organization will still be using the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in its grassroots organizing efforts against the Byhalia Pipeline.