On April 1, Indigenous youth organizing against the Dakota Access pipeline and Line 3 expansion project gathered outside the White House to demand President Joe Biden shut down both crude oil projects. Private energy companies can’t keep building more oil and gas infrastructure if leaders are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, companies continue to do so—and government agencies continue to allow them.
In Memphis, Tennessee, another proposed crude oil pipeline is bringing the community together in an organized effort to stop it. There, advocates are worried that any future spills or leaks from the proposed Byhalia Connection pipeline would contaminate their drinking water, which comes exclusively from the Memphis Sand Aquifer below. They’re also concerned about the pipeline’s proposed route through the southwestern part of the city, home to predominantly Black communities that are already heavily industrialized. On Thursday, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit to challenge a federal permit for the project.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’re going to learn all about the 49-mile-long pipeline. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Forty-nine miles might not sound like much, but the project would connect more than a thousand miles of pipe from the operational Diamond and Capline pipelines, owned by energy companies Valero and Plains All American Pipeline. If they’re successful, nearly 200,000 barrels of oil may soon push across the aquifer every day.
In 2016, Justin J. Pearson closely followed the news around the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s attempt to stop the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. He remembers feeling heartbroken when tribal leaders ceremoniously burned their tipis in February 2017, marking the end of the months-long encampment. Pearson didn’t know it then, but this Indigenous-led effort against a massive energy company would go on to inspire him to create a similar movement in Memphis, where he lives.
“There’s something about the resolve—even in losses—that I think has helped encourage me to be a part of this movement that’s building here in Memphis,” Pearson says.
In October 2020, Pearson co-founded Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, a grassroots group organizing to stop the Byhalia pipeline. The 49-mile crude oil pipeline would cut through his beloved Memphis, exacerbating the already urgent climate crisis by keeping us hooked on oil. While the 26-year-old had been active in several community groups and boards, he hadn’t really spent time on so-called environmental causes. However, this proposed oil pipeline is more than an environmental risk; it could jeopardize the entire city’s drinking water supply. That’s part of the legal argument in a lawsuit the Southern Environmental Law Center filed Thursday against the Army Corps of Engineers, which approved a federal permit in February for the project without requiring any public comment or environmental impact statement .
The Memphis Sand Aquifer lies 1,000 feet underground. The groundwater system formed about 70 million years ago, and it lives on providing clean water to nearly a million people in Shelby County, as well as communities in eastern Arkansas and northern Mississippi. Nearby industrial pollutants and groundwater use already threaten the aquifer, but many community members worry about contamination from the proposed pipeline. The pipeline companies’ preferred route would take it across a well field where the utility Memphis Light, Gas, and Water pumps drinking water into people’s homes.
“It’s a goldmine of beautiful, wonderful, pure, and unadulterated water,” says Jim Kovarik, the director of Protect Our Aquifer, a local environmental group that advocates for protecting the Memphis Sand Aquifer. “Were there ever to be a spill, not only would we be destroying this 2,000-year-old water, it could end up in the Mississippi River.”
Water systems are interconnected, and the Mississippi River is included in this one. The pipeline would also cross six wetlands, as well as streams seven times, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s November 2020 permit approval. But water is not the only major red flag with this project. Memphis sits within the most seismically active region in the Central and Eastern U.S. Oil flows at such high pressures in pipelines that even a small hole or puncture could result in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil.
At least four landowners are now embroiled in litigation—but not over potential environmental harm. In March, the pipeline developer sued landowners who refused to sell their land upon which to build the pipeline. The companies behind the Byhalia pipeline are arguing they have eminent domain over the land, but landowners disagree.
“What we’re talking about is out-of-state, for-profit companies that are building privately owned structures that will be used to transport a privately owned commodity—crude oil—across state lines as they connect a pipeline that comes out of Oklahoma to a pipeline that will flow down to the Gulf Coast,” says George Nolan, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is involved in the case and opposes the project.
What makes this all the more egregious is the historical context. Some Black landowners inherited their property from ancestors who purchased the land during a time when Black land ownership was far more complicated due to racist legal restrictions, redlining, and white violence. This remains an issue today: Black families make up only 1 percent of rural landowners. Equitable land access is a reparations demand from the Movement for Black Lives.
There’s also an element of environmental racism. It’s hardly a coincidence that a dangerous infrastructure project winds up in a Black community. In southwestern Memphis, the community is already home to a retired coal plant where 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash remain. Across the street is an operational gas power plant. Not far from these two industrial sites rests a wastewater plant, which emits a pungent odor through the neighborhood when the wind is blowing, says Kovarik of Protect the Aquifer. Dirty toxic industries are relegated to this corner of the city, putting residents at disproportionate health and environmental risks.
“It is cruel the pain and punishment of fossil fuel companies, of companies that are releasing toxins into the air,” Pearson says. “It’s cruel what they’re doing to people in southwest Memphis, and it’s only for their profit.”
You can see why community members like Pearson and Kovarik have been organizing. Kathy Robinson, also a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, has been leading the work alongside Pearson to knock on doors and inform her neighbors about the risks. She grew up near Boxtown, one of the impacted Memphis neighborhoods, and some family still lives there. This local activation could go a long way in shaping the future energy landscape in Memphis as the public grows more involved in public decision-making processes.
“People power is more significant than the money and the resources of billion dollar corporations.”
“People in this community who are very concerned about the future, it’s not enough to have assurances that this company will be committed to a safe operation,” says Caroline Peyton, an instructor of environmental history at the University of Memphis. “They’re rightly skeptical about how their communities will be cared for if an accident does happen. In terms of the future, you’ll have more people engaged in the issues and paying attention.”
As soon as Robinson learned about the pipeline in September 2020, she began emailing her elected officials, a key part of their strategy. Already, Tennessee State Rep. Barbara Cooper and Congressman Steve Cohen support opponents and have been advocating on their behalf. Former Vice President Al Gore visited the community in March to join in a pipeline protest. In March, the Memphis City Council also passed an ordinance against the pipeline.
The project developers promise to create about 500 jobs and more than $3 million in annual tax revenue, but that’s not even 1 percent of the billions of dollars in profit the company would make a year. (Atmos reached out to Valero and Plains All American Pipeline but, at the time of publishing, has not received a response.) This Memphis community deserves more. Its residents have been through enough over the decades—from lack of public health infrastructure to the overburdening of pollution. Folks welcome jobs and development, but in the age of climate calamity, a crude oil pipeline is simply not it. And they don’t plan on quitting until the pipeline is gone for good.
“People power is more significant than the money and the resources of billion dollar corporations,” Pearson says. “It is spirit-filled and led, and it is an unstoppable force in our movement for justice here in Memphis.”
Update, April 5, 2021, 11:45 am EDT: The story has been updated to clarify that Kathy Robinson is a leader in the movement as co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.