by James Coleman —

An ordinance curtailing the construction of pipelines carrying hazardous materials – including crude oil – within city limits was put on the back-burner after the Memphis City Council opted to continue crafting the resolution during Tuesday’s (April 20) meeting.

The proposed statute, ordinance no. 5782, is the latest salvo in a bid by pipeline opponents on the council to have the proposed Byhalia Connection pipeline rerouted away from the Memphis Sands Aquifer, the city and region’s main source of fresh drinking water.

“With council’s feedback and help from stakeholders and the legal community, we drafted an updated ordinance that will continue to protect Memphians, our drinking water, and is well within the bounds of this body’s authority to pass,” said co-sponsor Jeff Warren during a committee discussion.

The council member also compared the effort to the halting of the I-40 project in through Overton Park in January 1981. That proposal would have bypassed the I-240 loop with a connection, paving a multi-lane path through the park and other parts of Midtown that have since boomed in value and allowed for significant upgrades to the Memphis Zoo.

“Today’s vote is not dissimilar. This is about what our city will look like, not only today, or tomorrow, but in 50 years,” said Warren.

The 49-mile stretch of pipeline would connect the Valero refinery in Memphis with an existing conduit in Byhalia, Mississippi. The project is a partnership between Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline and San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp.

As proposed, the pipeline project would run through historically marginalized African-American neighborhoods in Southwest Memphis, leaving it open to accusations of environmental racism.

The ordinance delay came at the request of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s office and Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division (MLGW), who hope to strengthen the ordinance.

If it passes, it could attract a lawsuit from a deep-pocketed corporation.

“We do not want anybody suing us. That’s the issue and that’s the reason why I’m for trying to hold this for two weeks and then we’ll come back and visit it,” warned Councilman Edmund Ford Sr.

Ford noted that planned meetings are still to be held with lawyers for several entities, including the city, council and MLGW. He also warned of the complexities of the road ahead.

“This is a very important item…It’s not just about aquifers, just about the pipeline. It’s got to do with MLGW, the city and lawsuits. We cannot afford any lawsuits right now,” he counseled.

Council members also heard brief remarks from both sides of the issue. Legal ramifications from the ordinance weren’t the only concern that warranted more study.

According to a legal opinion advising the council, the impact of the pipeline on the aquifer deserved further scrutiny.

“This controversy about the Byhalia pipeline has highlighted a crazy regulatory gap. No one is minding the store as far as protecting the aquifer concerned. We know that because when the Corps of Engineers and the state approved this pipeline project, they said they did not consider groundwater,” said George Nolan, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Prior to the meeting, both Plains All American and Valero sent letters to council members, urging a slow down to drum up solutions to soothe concerns of critics. The advice did little to dampen opposition from detractors on the council.

“We should, and we can, collectively stand up to developers from outside Memphis, who would rather threaten litigation than comply with environmental community review processes outlined in this ordinance requested by citizens,” said Warren.