Environmental justice: Troubling the water

A history of injustice

Water pollution continues to cause a disproportionate, adverse impact on Black and Brown communities, other communities of color, and lower wealth communities throughout the South. In unincorporated communities across the region, Black neighborhoods face threats to their well water, and fiscal hurdles in getting connected to municipal services.  

In neighborhoods adjacent to industrial facilities, those residents face contamination of their local lakes, rivers, and streams from exceedances of permits to pollute or from contaminated runoff associated with the industrial operation. In aging homes and schools, lead pipes pose drinking water risks that are most likely to negatively impact developing young minds.  

The systemic harms of redlining, poor zoning decisions and lack of representation of people of color in local governments create the backdrop through which we view the additional work necessary to stop polluting projects and further harm to particularly vulnerable communities. 

Advocating for and with communities

We are committed to improving water quality by holding polluters accountable, pushing regulators to do the same, and advocating for more federal, state, and local resource allocation to communities of color across the southeast. 

We do this work in collaboration with neighborhood community groups, civil rights advocates, and environmental partners. The front-line experience of our partners on the ground in communities, accompanied by our expertise in legal advocacy, combine to create consistent, formidable opposition to polluters, as well as providing additional resources to sometimes overstretched regulatory agencies.  Each new front in the fight for environmental justice is met with the cumulative force of our legal skills and the leadership of the communities who know their experience best.  

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.

Amanda Garcia, SELC Tennessee Office Director

Byhalia Pipeline and Badin Lake: water wins

In a recent win for environmental justice and water, 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.

Among other harmful impacts, the pipeline was slated to plow through a drinking water well field in southwest Memphis operated by Memphis Light, Gas and Water. 

Community groups Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP) and Protect Our Aquifer led the charge to rally 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. Representing MCAP, Protect Our Aquifer, and the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, we fought state and federal permits for the project and represented MCAP in litigation challenging the pipeline company’s attempt to forcibly take Black landowners’ property through condemnation lawsuits.

Another win in North Carolina came when public outcry over a plan to evade pollution limits convinced the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to reverse course on the proposed deal. Badin Lake is a popular destination for fishing and recreation, but also the site for a shuttered Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. Discharges from the plant contained unacceptable levels of cyanide and fluoride even after partial re-construction of a water piping system required by a 2019 settlement SELC helped negotiate. West Badin is a predominantly Black community near Badin Lake and Concerned Citizens of West Badin Community led the charge in fighting pollution from the plant.

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