Press Release | April 2, 2021

Concerned Citizens Challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Fast-Track Water Permit for Byhalia Pipeline

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The Southern Environmental Law Center (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 public input under this permit is not appropriate for large oil pipelines like Byhalia, which tend to have significant impacts on communities and the environment. 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. One of the significant community impacts of the Byhalia pipeline is that the path will cut 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 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 lengthy 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.”

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Southern Environmental Law Center

For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With more than 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org

Memphis Community Against Pollution*

Memphis Community Against the Pipeline recently incorporated as a nonprofit under Memphis Community Against Pollution.

Memphis Community Against Pollution’s mission is to pursue environmental justice for Black communities in southwest Memphis, to protect the health and environment of the area, and to prevent environmental racism.

The organization will still be using the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in its grassroots organizing efforts against the Byhalia Pipeline. www.MemphisCAP.org/

Protect Our Aquifer

The mission of Protect Our Aquifer is guardianship of our most precious resource—water. In Shelby County, this means preserving and protecting the Memphis Sand Aquifer for the benefit of present and future generations. www.ProtectOurAquifer.org

Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in Tennessee, with more than 105,000 members and supporters across the state. The Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org/tennessee

Press Contacts

Scott Smallwood

Director of Marketing

Phone: 404-521-9900
Email: ssmallwood@selcga.org