The new City Council ordinance comes on the heels of the defeat of the proposed Byhalia Pipeline. (Photo: TSD Archives)

by James Coleman —

An attorney for Plains All-American Pipeline cautioned the Memphis City Council Tuesday (July 6) that anti-pipeline ordinances under consideration could hamstring the city legally and economically.

The ordinance under consideration would ban crude oil pipelines within 1,500 feet of homes or churches in Memphis. It is sponsored by council members Edmund Ford Sr. and Jeff Warren.

The company said July 2 that it was withdrawing the controversial Byhalia Connection Pipeline project because of declining demand for gasoline during the COVID pandemic. 

It made no mention of the vocal opposition to the project.

The council was scheduled to take a final vote on a pipeline ordinance Tuesday. However, an update to the proposed ordinance was introduced. 

The update called for the creation of an underground infrastructure advisory board to oversee works that convey hazardous materials, such as crude oil. Like the earlier ordinance, it also is sponsored by council members Edmund Ford and Jeff Warren.

Warren moved for its first reading with no recommendation at the next meeting, on July 20. 

Meanwhile, a new path for the pipeline through Mississippi is in the works.

“Any concerns over a pipeline potentially impacting the aquifer were and continue to be exaggerated. There is also no legal basis for these ordinances and they will be overturned when challenged,” warned Cory Thornton, attorney for the Houston-based company.

The City Charter, he said, does not give the council the authority to pass the ordinance because it does not feature the words “crude oil,” but specifically mentions other hazardous materials like gunpowder. 

He also accused the council of line-stepping on higher authorities.

“These provisions do not provide any authority for the regulatory oversight concerning the construction and operation of crude oil pipelines … .The ordinances here are trying to step in areas of regulation already occupied by state and federal agencies.”

Saying there was no “logical, technical or legal basis” for the ordinance, Thornton cited a third-party study commissioned by Plains All-American that concluded the pipeline posed no danger to the aquifer.

“They concluded that it is not reasonably possible to impact the Memphis Aquifer from a crude oil spill because crude oil moves slowly in soil. This gives time to clean up any spills in the unlikely event that one occurs.

“It takes shallow groundwater 20 to 40 years to reach the deeper Memphis Sand Aquifer, by which time crude oil would be cleaned up, or will be eaten by bacteria and naturally broken down.”

Nevertheless, a study by The U.S. Geological Survey found that “groundwater contamination by crude oil, and other petroleum-based liquids, is a widespread problem.”

The study noted that an average of 83 spills occurred from 1994-96, with each averaging about 50,000 barrels lost, and that an understanding of the “fate of organic contaminants” was needed to design “cost-effective remedial solutions” to cleanup.

Before asking the lawyer to wrap up his comments, one council member was taken aback by the threats of legal action and airing of grievances.

“I thought the conversation would have been more tailored to continued investment in the City of Memphis. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for a long discussion or thoughts regarding continued conversations around the pipeline and this body,” said JB Smiley Jr., a lawyer.

During a preamble to the more pointed comments, the possibility of future projects was brought up by Plain’s representation.

“As we said throughout the life of this project, we remain committed to the Memphis area and the positive relationships we have developed with local stakeholders. We will continue to build and maintain those relationships as we operate our existing assets, or explore new opportunities in the area,” said Thornton.

San Antonio-based Valero Energy is a partner in the Byhalia project and owner of the Valero Memphis Refinery. In a letter detailing opposition to the ordinances, Eric Brown, the refinery’s vice president and general manager, said  the proposals could make it more difficult to maintain and expand a pipeline that supplies jet fuel to Memphis International Airport.