This was one of the many signs of opposition to the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline that were on display at a Southwest Memphis rally. (Courtesy photo)

by James Coleman —

An ordinance crafted to protect Memphis’ water supply from future oil pipeline projects and withstand legal challenges sailed through the Memphis City Council on a 13-0 vote Tuesday (Sept. 21).

“You asked me to come forward with a comprehensive ordinance that dovetailed with state law, federal law and more importantly be defensible in court. That’s pretty much what I tried to do,” said council member Jeff Warren, who, in large part, shepherded the ordinance through the council.

Action on two related ordinances was held after some council members expressed concerned about sharing regulatory authority with the county, including where a pipeline can be built in Memphis. The County Commission recently passed an ordinance restricting where oil pipelines such as the Byhalia Pipeline can be built. 

The city statute establishes wellhead overlay protection districts. If a property lies in a district, any future construction projects or major renovations would face additional oversight before it can move forward.

“They are exactly what they sound like they are. They lay on top of the zoning map and can contain an additional set of regulations,” said City Council Attorney Allan Wade.

The Land Use Control Board and the City Council, with the council having the final say, will regulate the land use around public wells used by MLGW to draw water from the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the city’s main source of freshwater.

“This ordinance would create overlay districts, an archipelago of overlay districts around these wells, specifically the public wells we all utilize, not private ones,” said Josh Whitehead, zoning administrator for Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.

The size of the districts would also make build-arounds prohibitive.

“It would be very difficult, considering the scope of the wellhead areas,” said Wade, the council’s attorney.

Specific uses that are potential contaminants by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation guidelines, which could range from a new auto repair shop to redesigning a golf course, would be flagged by the Division of Planning and Development. 

The wellhead administrator for Memphis Light Gas and Water Division and a zoning official would review the application if it lies in an overlay district.

If it does, the applicant will need to file a special use permit with the division. This would be followed by a two-hearing process with the Land Use Control Board and then the City Council.

“This body (the council) would have the power to approve or reject that application,” said Wade.

If ultimately approved, a gas station, for example, may require “some kind of extra attention to the tank” or “maybe this body would say there are no remediation remedies” and reject the permit, Whitehead said.

Council member Chase Carlisle asked for the ordinance to be amended to reflect changes made by Wade and the planning division during their review. It was seconded by JB Smiley.

The ordinance comes on the heels of the defeat of the proposed Byhalia Pipeline. The Plains All-American Pipeline project was slated to be built through Southwest Memphis’ predominantly African-American neighborhoods on its way to its endpoint in Byhalia, Miss. 

It was shelved in July following staunch opposition from a coalition of environmentalists, civil rights activists and concerned citizens.