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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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Council says ‘No’ to Byhalia Pipeline

by James Coleman — 

In what was hailed as an important first step toward an ordinance banning construction of the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline through areas of Southwest Memphis, the Memphis City Council has approved a resolution opposing the construction.

The 12-0 vote resulted from Tuesday’s regularly scheduled council session.

Councilman Jeff Warren, who sponsored the resolution approved by the council, at Sunday’s rally against the pipeline. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

“My resolution merely speaks to the fact that there is a predilection for these companies for using African-American communities to put these toxic facilities through,” said Councilman  Jeff Warren, who sponsored the resolution. 

“There is no particular reason that they need to do that. It (the resolution) does call on us to investigate and attempt to pass whatever ordinances that are available.”

The 49-mile crude oil pipeline envisioned in the Plains All American Pipeline LP project would cut through southwest Memphis and pass over the Memphis Sands Aquifer, the main drinking water resource for Memphis and the larger area. Opponents fear leaks and other accidents could harm the vital resource.

Meanwhile, the developers have circulated an open letter to Memphis residents conveying, in part, that partners in the venture have been listening to the residents’ concerns and working to meet expectations for 18 months.

“All the while, our commitment to treating Memphians with care, respect and consideration remains firm,” the letter reads. “We take our responsibility to you very seriously and we remain dedicated to listening, gaining and maintaining your trust, and safely constructing and operating the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Actions speak louder than words and trust is not given, it’s earned.”

The pipeline, according to the letter, “is a safe, responsible way to meet the energy needs of our country and provide a long-term benefit to Mid-South communities.”

Speaking to his resolution, Warren said there is “a lot of information out there that points to the fact that we do have an ability to be able to affect the route of this pipeline.”

Several legal sources have been consulting members of the council on options to halt the project, or even its feasibility. The list has included those representing organizations opposed to the pipeline.

“What we are proposing is an ordinance that is designed to protect that precious resource (the aquifer),” said George Nolan, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

“It is designed to protect the drinking water resources of the community as well as the rights of the more unfairly treated, predominantly Black areas of town where there is already a lot of environmental burden.”

He noted aspects of the city’s charter that he said could be employed to block the pipeline. Those aspects included protecting the health of its citizens and management of flammable materials. 

The state’s Safe Water Act could also be used, said Nolan, adding that the Corps of Engineers and the state had only studied the project’s impact on surface water, not groundwater. 

The City of Memphis has yet to make a call on the matter. According to Mayor Jim Strickland, seven permits for the pipeline have been put on hold pending further research on the project’s impact.

“Just because you pass an ordinance doesn’t mean anything,” said Allen Wade, the council’s attorney. “The first time you try to stop Plains America from going forward with their project, if they don’t agree with our analysis, we are going to be in litigation.” 

While no council member voted against Warren’s resolution, there was expression of the need for caution.

“I’m torn because I know we all want to do whatever is in our power to help our constituents, especially in a significant issue – environmental racism and social justice,” said Councilman Chase Carlisle.

“I really need time to reflect on this. I am happy to move this ordinance and begin the process, but I think we need to get a better understanding of this as the weeks go on … to engage MLGW, to engage the city in what could be a multi-million dollar lawsuit.”

Justin J. Pearson (left), co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, listened intensely as former Vice President Al Gore detailed his opposition to the project at Southwest Memphis rally on Sunday. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Councilman JB Smiley Jr. introduced an amendment to the resolution calling for options to be explored in case the bid to stop the pipeline failed. It passed unanimously.

The amendment also calls for a savings plan to be created for the city of Memphis in case there is a pipeline leak and monthly reports to the council. 

“I want to be clear, this resolution states specifically (that) the Memphis City Council opposes the Byhalia pipeline,” Smiley said. “There is no reference in here that the city council has conceded that we cannot win.” 

Rep. Steve Cohen has appealed to President Biden to pause the project. 

“I guess we’ll find out how much juice our congressman has,” said Carlisle.

Voting for the resolution and its amendments were Rhonda Logan, Patrice J. Robinson, Jamita Swearengen, Worth Morgan, Edmund Ford Sr., Michalyn Easter-Thomas, Martavius Jones, J. Ford Canale, Cheyenne Johnson, Carlisle, Warren and Smiley.

Council Chairman Frank H. Colvett Jr. did not vote.

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