Shelby County Commissioner Willie F. Brooks, with his wife, Dianne, alongside, is sworn in as County Commission chairman by Judge Bernice Donald, who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

by James Coleman —

Memphis and Shelby County are another step closer to prohibiting construction of oil pipelines after county commissioners approved an ordinance updating the joint pipeline development code on a 10-0 vote during the commission’s Monday (Sept. 13) meeting.

The amendment creates a new-use category for pipelines. It requires projects to be placed 1,500 feet from certain land uses, such as housing developments, schools and places of worship.

It does not apply to existing pipelines, oil-related infrastructure or service.

“We need legislation to ensure a 1,500 feet pipeline setback. This legislation is important because our communities deserve protection,” said Pearl Walker, chair of the Memphis Chapter NAACP’s environmental justice committee, and one of several public commenters queued up before the vote.

It also drew the support of Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

“With community members taking the lead, we’ve already stopped the Byhalia pipeline. Now, it’s time to stop all oil pipelines that might pose a risk to our neighborhoods. I am hopeful that the County Commission will support regulation of oil pipelines. Their final vote is today,” tweeted Harris prior to the vote.

On Sept. 21, the Memphis City Council will vote on a similar ordinance. It seeks to ban oil pipeline projects within the city of Memphis to protect the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the city and county’s main source of fresh drinking water. A rupture, for example, could threaten the water source, pipeline critics have said.

If the ordinance passes as expected, it will be up to both bodies to get on the same page regarding the ordinances’ language. 

However, if the city’s effort is watered down or moots the county’s, the process could be extended.

“I have the right to ask for reconsideration being on the prevailing side. I don’t like doing that, but there is at least one commissioner that does it a lot, so the precedent has been set. I just want to see things in order. I have a right to do that as an elected official,” warned commissioner Edmund Ford, Jr.

Ford also chided parties on both sides of the issue for making it difficult to stay neutral, fact find and weigh legal options. He added that viable information – again, from both sides – was scarce. 

Ford also went on record, accusing both sides of over-stepping bounds while trying to sway members.

“If you want to get your thoughts across, do it in a compelling manner – and I’m talking about both sides. I haven’t seen Plains (All-American, the company that wanted to construct a pipe through Southwest Memphis), but I went off on them.

“But the other side was not any better. I have to say this on record and there are at least three other commissioners that have had to do stuff on record too,” said Ford, who voted in favor of the ordinance.

The county’s ban on pipelines is another kick at the corpse of the ill-fated Byhalia Pipeline Project – and future like projects. 

Because the pipeline would have run through basically African-American neighborhoods, it left the company and pipeline supporters open to accusations of environmental racism. 

It has since been scuttled and Plains currently is seeking to reroute the project.

The ordinance was sponsored by commissioners Willie Brooks, Van Turner Jr., Tami Sawyer, Michael Whaley, Reginald Milton, Mickell Lowery and Mark Billingsley.

Commissioners Amber Mills and David Bradford abstained from voting.