by James Coleman —

A measure that would have asked the federal government to put a hold on the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline project failed on 5-6 vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on Monday.

In a related matter, the commission also defeated, by a 9-2 vote, a resolution that would have approved the sale of two parcels of land earmarked for the project.

The 49-mile Plains All American Pipeline LP project would carry crude oil through Southwest Memphis to Mississippi. It would cut over the Memphis Sands Aquifer, the main drinking water resource for Memphis and Shelby County. 

Critics fear leaks and other accidents could harm the resource. 

“With all due respect, the people at Byhalia may understand Memphis, but they do not live here. They do not drink the water,” said activist Keshaun Pearson of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.

“They will not suffer the consequences when a spill does happen. We know they happen because only seven percent of spills are detected, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.”

The pipeline also would pass through backyards and properties primarily owned by African Americans, which has the proposed project open to accusations of environmental racism. 

Katie Martin, communications manager for Plains and Byhalia Connection, said, “We had to go through South Memphis to connect to the refinery. It was not a choice to choose one people over another. We chose this route on purpose. 

“We chose mainly vacant properties to (not) impact the community.”

There are lingering questions about what substantial benefit Memphis and Shelby County will derive from the deal, opponents claim.

“It does not have benefits for anyone except an out-of-state, multi-billion-dollar pipeline company. It puts every one of us, all of our water at risk,” said Pearson.

Opposition to the project has grown into a national story. Former vice president and environmentalist Al Gore recently visited Memphis to voice his disapproval. 

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis also is appealing to the Biden administration to pause the conduit’s moving forward. The goal is to have the pipeline rerouted or even abandoned. 

Mick Wright

County Commissioner Mick Wright, who voted against the federal resolution, said, “I just struggle with this. I think it becomes very political when you have a former vice president come into town. It’s harder on people of my particular political variety to join you on things like this. I am just not fully there. I apologize to the sponsors that I am not quite there yet.” 

He also expressed the benefits derived from fossil fuels, economic and otherwise, as well as the need for cleaner resources to be developed. Right of way for the pipeline was a concern, however.

“I’ve heard the same concerns that Commissioner (Michael) Whaley speaks of from citizens, particularly with regards to our aquifer. But there are some other parts of this that concern me as well, including eminent domain proceedings. That is not how I would prefer to be handled.”

Commissioners Whaley, Reginald Milton, Mickell M. Lowery, Eddie Jones and Tami Sawyer voted in favor of the resolution. It drew no votes from commissioners Mark Billingsley, David C. Bradford, Amber Mills, Brandon Morrison, Van Turner Jr. and Wright. It was sponsored by Sawyer.

The vote ran contrary to the Memphis City Council’s unanimous vote to a similar measure during its March 17 meeting.

Although a message to Washington drew a successful, albeit lukewarm, opposition, the proposed sale of two parcels of land slated for the pipeline’s path drew apprehension.

A motion to defer the vote to the April 12 meeting offered by Morrison until the possibility of litigation could be studied was defeated.

Tami Sawyer

“We owe the community a vote,” said Sawyer.

Bradford and Mills voted in favor of the sale.  Billingsley, Turner, Sawyer, Whaley, Wright, Milton, Lowery, Morrison and Jones turned it down.

As the project nears, opposition and public awareness have intensified. Activists and other opponents were accused of abusive behavior by a representative of the pipeline during the five minutes allotted to each side of the debate.

“We know that many people won’t speak up because of the unconscionable pressure and bullying that has been targeted at our consultants and even at nonprofit leaders. But our supporters are still there,” said Martin, who also accused local media of sitting on letters from pro-pipeline residents.

“Ninety-six percent of landowners have signed easements. Over 8,000 letters of support from Memphians and Shelby County residents have been sent to all the elected officials here and to others throughout the city of Memphis.” 

Sawyer defended constituents and opponents of the project from criticisms from Mills, who chided some’s monotone delivery “read straight from script” and “being told to call me” or for sending form letters.