The right to clean water

A history of injustice

Water pollution continues to disproportionately impact Black and other communities of color throughout the South. Across the region, Black neighborhoods face threats to well water, and hurdles in getting connected to municipal services. 

Residents in neighborhoods adjacent to industrial facilities face threats of contamination of local lakes, rivers, and streams from irresponsible permitting decisions and from contaminated runoff associated with industrial operations. In aging homes and schools, lead pipes pose drinking water risks that are most likely to negatively impact developing young minds. 

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 South.

We do this work in collaboration with community groups, civil rights advocates, and environmental partners. Partners on the ground are often experiencing environmental and public health crises every day. Their organizing efforts, accompanied by our legal advocacy, combine to create consistent, formidable opposition to polluters, and provide additional resources to often 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

Water wins

In a 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 historically Black 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.

SELC and our partners also worked together to achieve a win in North Carolina. Badin Lake is a popular destination for fishing and recreation but is also the former site of a shuttered Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. Discharges from the plant contained unacceptable levels of cyanide and fluoride, even after a 2019 settlement SELC helped negotiate required partial re-construction of a water piping system. 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. As a result of public outcry over a plan to evade pollution limits, which convinced the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to reverse course on the proposed deal.

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