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Activists Have Shut Down a Memphis-Area Pipeline — But Their Fight Isn’t Over

Developers still retain indefinite rights to access privately owned land along the Byhalia Connection’s canceled route.

People participate in a rally led by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 14, 2021.

As the dust settles on their victory, the coalition of activists and community members that opposed the Byhalia Connection oil pipeline in greater Memphis, Tennessee — which developers officially canceled on July 2 — are continuing to mobilize, because they say a risk to the land, water, climate and community remains.

In step with the cancellation, Plains All American Pipeline has requested state and federal agencies to revoke necessary permits for the Byhalia Connection — what would have been a 49-mile route connecting a refinery in Memphis to an oil terminal in northern Mississippi, running through a series of majority-Black neighborhoods in Tennessee. The pipeline was a joint venture between Plains and Valero Energy Corporation.

As MLK50 reported shortly after the announcement, developers have said that community members who received compensation can keep it. But as with the canceled Keystone XL and Atlantic Coast pipelines, developers still retain indefinite rights to access parts of privately owned land along the canceled route.

Justin J. Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP), told Truthout that having an out-of-state company continue to own land access is exploitative. “That’s another injustice on top of the injustice of having someone knock on your door and tell you, if you don’t sell your land we’re going to sue you,” he said, referring to developers’ use of eminent domain in obtaining easements in low-wealth communities. “It’s violence upon people’s bodies and people’s souls having to be treated this way.”Anti-pipeline organizers around the country concur, noting that the retaining of indefinite rights leaves the possibility of future disenfranchisement wide open.

“It’s a one-time payment for a lifetime of risk,” Nebraska organizer Jane Kleeb told Truthout. Kleeb is the founding director of Bold Nebraska, which helped lead opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline. “There’s no reason why a pipeline company needs a forever-agreement,” she said.

George Nolan, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center who has represented MCAP and other community partners, told Truthout a lawyer representing the cancelled project said they would consider requests to return easements to Memphis landowners who pay the company back on a “case-by-case” basis, noting that it remained to be seen how the company planned to handle their control of easements in Mississippi.

“A problem with that approach by the pipeline company is that this happened during a pandemic and I’m presuming that many folks just may no longer have the money,” Nolan said, adding that in some cases, compensation from the company may have gone to paying back taxes.

Representatives of Plains All American did not respond to Truthout’s requests for comment.

More Pipes, More People Power

Fossil fuel interests have hurried to lay pipelines across the continent since 2015 when Congress lifted a 40-year export ban on oil. Sites of resistance to the ensuing construction have become physical and symbolic climate battlegrounds.

The victory by grassroots groups in Memphis opposing the Byhalia Pipeline on the grounds of environmental racism comes weeks after developers canceled the Keystone XL oil pipeline, while the Biden administration continues to support the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. According to the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous women and two-spirit-led anti-pipeline group on the frontlines of Line 3 resistance, nearly 600 people have been arrested for civil disobedience in the fight against Line 3. Arrestees include seven Water Protectors who peacefully faced off against law enforcement to stop Enbridge from drawing water from the Shell River on July 19.

Opposition to the pipeline in Memphis began in early 2020 at a small gathering in a chapel full of mostly seniors who raised questions about the project because the proposed route ran through community members’ land. Residents worried the pipeline would threaten property values and the health of residents in historically Black neighborhoods along its route. Members of the Sierra Club and the local nonprofit Protect Our Aquifer also questioned the company’s process early on, extensively researching which permits the company was pursuing and the degree to which the project threatened the Memphis Sand Aquifer, a geologic formation near the most seismically active area east of the Rocky Mountains that provides drinking water to Memphis-area residents.

But it wasn’t until a younger generation of activists organized a community meeting, at which MCAP was formed, that the movement against the pipeline gained momentum, drawing in Black landowners and allies from across the city and out of state.

Deb Carington, a geologist from northern Mississippi who attended early Byhalia Pipeline-sponsored open houses on behalf of Protect Our Aquifer, told Truthout that the formation of MCAP helped draw legal support, including from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and elevate the project to the national level. “[MCAP] brought tremendous energy and optimism that was huge for raising public awareness,” Carrington said.

Pearson said as he and other activists learned about the permitting process, they found it appalling that although there were environmental regulations protecting wetlands and bats in mating season, there were none protecting the people living along a proposed route, nor the groundwater from which they drink. Bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act require environmental assessments to be conducted if a proposed project stands to impact a specific set of endangered species. But regulators in charge of issuing permits the company pursued, including a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, explained in a letter to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) that they did not have authority to deny the permit due to concerns over environmental justice or groundwater.

“Those regulatory gaps have real world implications on our lives,” Pearson said, noting that both of his grandmothers died of cancer in their sixties. “In the absence of any care about environmental racism or legacy pollution, having no point where they get addressed is a perfect example of government-institutionalized racism.” The cancer rate in southwest Memphis is four times the U.S. average, according to research by University of Memphis public health professor Chunrong Jia.

In April, a coalition of environmental groups, including MCAP, sued the Army Corps for not properly evaluating the project’s impact on the environment when issuing a Nationwide 12 streamlined water-crossing permit, as MLK50 reported. The case is pending in district court.

Closing Loopholes

Pearson and other members of the anti-pipeline coalition say they plan to reach out to and fundraise for residents who want their land rights back but may not be in a position to pay the company back, particularly given economic hardship related to the ongoing pandemic. They’re also rallying support for a set of local ordinances that would prevent future underground infrastructure projects from encroaching on the city’s drinking water source and disproportionately threatening the health of Black, migrant and low-income residents. The ordinances would fill what organizers describe as major loopholes in existing local, state and federal permitting processes that were not designed to take environmental justice concerns into account.

One of the ordinances would create an underground infrastructure advisory board composed of city officials, water experts and a community member with environmental justice expertise selected by the Memphis mayor, and prohibit developers from building new infrastructure to transport hazardous liquids, including oil, without first obtaining a new permit from city council, upon which the advisory board would issue a recommendation.

Approval of the permit would be contingent upon the project meeting a host of conditions, such as environmental analysis of adverse impacts on groundwater, distance from wells and the degree to which it might harm “minority populations, low-income populations, or neighborhoods historically burdened by environmental pollution.” The ordinance essentially aims to plug gaps in local, state and federal permitting processes, organizers say.

“You gotta do your due diligence, that’s what we’re asking,” Protect Our Aquifer Executive Director Sarah Houston said at a July 20 rally, during which community members marched from the Civil Rights Museum to City Hall. The Memphis City Council voted swiftly to pass the ordinance after its first reading later that day. Two additional readings and votes are required before the ordinance becomes law; they are likely to be scheduled for later this summer or early fall.

But community members are wary of ongoing meddling by company interests. On July 5, just days after announcing the cancellation, Cory Thornton, a lawyer for Plains All American, showed up at a city council meeting to oppose changes to city regulations, as the Commercial Appeal reported. “In light of the cancellation of our project, and the lack of logical, technical or legal reasons to suggest that there is an existing danger to residents or to drinking water, we urge the City Council not to pass the ordinance or setbacks. Even with modifications, these ordinances will hurt the greater Memphis economy and area.”

A link on the Byhalia Connection website connects to another page, Protect Memphis Jobs, focused on opposing a second community-proposed ordinance that would require future pipelines to be set back 1,500 feet, at minimum, from homes or places of worship. The site deems the ordinance “legally flawed” and lists the American Petroleum Institute, Consumer Energy Alliance and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, along with Plains All American and Byhalia Pipeline, as sponsors of the campaign.

Memphis organizers also expressed concerns that developers may be planning an alternate route and say they’ll continue to build “people power” across state lines in Arkansas and Mississippi.

“The culture has its eyes on Memphis and will take note whether the city council will act to protect Black lives or aid in their demise,” Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., founder of the Hip Hop Caucus, co-wrote in the Commercial Appeal. “As we move forward in Memphis, and prepare for future battles that will eventually come, we call on city leaders to fill regulatory gaps and pass ordinances now that would prevent similar pipeline projects from threatening the city’s water supply and most vulnerable communities.

Meanwhile, Kleeb of Bold Nebraska said she’s concerned about a relatively new threat — that TC Energy may later use or sell the easements they still own along the canceled Keystone XL route to build compressed carbon pipelines as part of a future carbon-capture network. Nebraska lawmakers recently passed a bill that encourages the development of technology, including pipelines, to capture emissions from industrial sites and whisk them away to be stored below ground. She worries the use of eminent domain for carbon capture infrastructure could replicate historic injustices while allowing polluting industries to continue to profit. While there’s no indication of such plans in Memphis, Kleeb notes that these systems are likely to be further incentivized by funds allotted for carbon capture in the hotly debated infrastructure bill. “Now we have to get laws in place to protect future landowners and fix the wrongs of the current situation,” she said. Kleeb is working to pass legislation at the state and federal level that would require developers to return easements to landowners in the event that a project is canceled.

Amid the backdrop of this summer’s record temperatures, fatal floods and mammoth fires, Pearson noted that the anti-pipeline movement nationwide is ultimately about pushing to avert the climate emergency, which is generating conditions for a sixth mass extinction, by eliminating projects that exploit communities with fewer resources and lead to the release of greenhouse gases. At the end of the day, according to Pearson, “Racist policies and a capitalistic system is what’s really fueling climate change.”

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