MEMPHIS, Tenn. — City council members in Memphis, Tennessee, were scheduled to vote Tuesday on a law that could make it more difficult for a company to build an oil pipeline over an aquifer that provides clean drinking water to 1 million people.
The Memphis City Council is set to vote in its afternoon meeting on an ordinance that would establish a board to approve or deny construction of underground pipelines that transport oil or other potentially toxic liquids near wells that pump millions of gallons of water daily from the Memphis Sand Aquifer.
The ordinance would be just the latest in a series of measures opponents have taken to block the pipeline, including a federal lawsuit. They have obtained the support of members of Congress and other well-known figures, including former Vice President Al Gore and actor Jane Fonda.
A joint venture formed by Valero Energy and the Plains All American pipeline company, the Byhalia Connection would link the Valero refinery in Memphis with another larger pipeline in north Mississippi. They want to build the 49-mile (78-kilometer) artery to carry crude oil to the Gulf Coast, a project that they say will bring needed jobs and tax revenue to the region.
Environmentalists, activists and politicians who oppose the pipeline are concerned that an oil spill would endanger the aquifer and the slightly sweet drinking water it provides to the Memphis area. In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Southern Environmental Law Center said the clay layer above the aquifer “has several known and suspected breaches, holes, and leaks.”
Activists also are upset that the pipeline would run through poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in south Memphis that for decades have dealt with environmental concerns such as air and ground pollution.
Some residents signed deals with Byhalia Connection to allow the pipeline builder to access their land for construction. Property owners who have not agreed to receive payment in return for easements on their land have been taken to court, with the pipeline company’s lawyers trying to use eminent domain rights to claim property.
The ordinance would require underground pipeline builders to provide documentation about any potential adverse effects on the environment and groundwater, and an analysis of the potential for negative effects on minorities, low-income residents, and neighborhoods historically burdened by environmental pollution.
Companies would have to show that the city would not be financially responsible for cleanup efforts associated with a spill or other accident. The board also would require a public comment period and a public hearing to discuss the project.
In a statement, project spokeswoman Katie Martin said the pipeline builders do not believe the ordinance “will survive legal scrutiny and we will explore all available legal options.”
“This ordinance is an example of ill-conceived local government overreach that is preempted by state and federal law,” Martin said.
Byhalia Connection has said the pipeline would be built a safe distance from the aquifer, which sits much deeper than the planned pipeline route. The company said the route was chosen after it reviewed population density, environmental features, gathering spots such as a scenic park, and historic cultural sites.
Byhalia Connection also has said the pipeline route was not driven by factors including race or class. The company has denied accusations of environmental racism that emerged after a Byhalia Connection land agent said during a community meeting that the developers “took, basically, a point of least resistance” in choosing the pipeline’s path.
“We know environmental racism is real and we’ve listened to this community, but the reason this pipeline runs through South Memphis is to connect to the Valero Refinery,” the company said in a March project update.
A federal lawsuit is challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the pipeline under a nationwide permit, and the Shelby County Commission has refused to sell to the pipeline builder two parcels of land that sit on the planned route.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, and about two dozen other members of Congress have sent a letter asking the administration of President Joe Biden to reconsider the permit approval.
In addition to Gore and Fonda, project opponents have received backing from the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Gore and Barber have attended rallies against the pipeline in Memphis.