A parcel of land owned by Karmen Johnson-Tutwiler is seen from a nearby railroad culvert in Boxtown.
In July, Byhalia Pipeline dropped its plans to route the proposed Byhalia Connection oil pipeline through mostly Black neighborhoods in Southwest Memphis. Credit: Brandon Dill / MLK50

This article originally appeared at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

Update: The Shelby County Commission on Tuesday held without discussion the third and final reading of a joint city-county ordinance that would require 1,500 feet between an oil pipeline and residential areas. The body passed on second reading a city-only ordinance that would create a new permitting process for such projects.

Nearly six months since the first pipeline-regulating ordinance was placed before the Memphis City Council and one month since developers canceled the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, local governments have yet to pass any measures that would make similar pipeline projects tougher, if not impossible, to build.

The council considered Tuesday afternoon the third and final reading of a joint city-county ordinance that would require 1,500 feet between an oil pipeline and residential areas. Also on the council agenda was the second of three readings for a city-only ordinance that would create a new permitting process for such projects.

Even though the project was halted, passing the two ordinances have been a priority of Justin J. Pearson, a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, which led the charge to stop the pipeline.

“We are as vulnerable today against crude oil pipelines as we were in (before the project was announced),” Pearson said. “Without legislation and just regulation, our aquifer and our people will remain vulnerable.” 

The now-canceled project was a joint venture of Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation to expand their crude oil capacity with a pipeline through largely poor and Black neighborhoods in Southwest Memphis and atop the vulnerable Memphis Sand Aquifer, from which the city draws its drinking water.

Plains voluntarily abandoned the project last month after facing opposition from Southwest Memphis residents, MCAP, elected officials, and national celebrities. However many pipeline opponents worry that without legal barriers to block it, the project could be revived later. In their cancellation announcement, Plains did not commit to abandoning the project permanently, nor did it signal that it wouldn’t pursue another pipeline in Memphis.

The city’s ordinance would create a new permitting process for oil pipelines, establish an advisory board of experts and community members to evaluate proposals, require public notice and comment, and give the city council final approval.

The council stalled the ordinance for months out of an abundance of caution after Plains threatened to sue. Some council members also wanted to address Memphis business leaders’ concerns that the ordinance would disrupt maintenance on existing pipelines. One of those companies was FedEx, which later gave its blessing to the ordinance.

“It is being explained to us that delays are happening because of a ‘corporate constituency’ that is against the legislation without any mention of the community constituency that is for just legislation and regulation being passed,” Pearson said.

If the council passes its half of the joint city-county ordinance, the measure will still need approval from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners before it becomes final. The commissioners have not passed a second reading of the ordinance.

At the July 26 commissioners meeting, Commissioner Willie Brooks moved to delay the second reading following a conversation with Valero during which he discovered discrepancies between the original ordinance and agreed amendments. Commissioner Van Turner objected, arguing the delay was unnecessary since the ordinance would still need a third reading. However Brooks’ motion to delay passed on a 6-5 vote.

The next steps for one of Memphis’ highest-profile environmental justice fights comes at the same time as the council mounts a response to a separate issue, this one from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

TVA surprised the council July 20 with its plans to move toxic coal ash from its facility in Southwest Memphis to a landfill near the predominantly Black community of Whitehaven. A retired TVA coal plant left behind millions of cubic yards worth of coal ash. TVA has contested an assertion that the ash poses a risk to the water supply made by the University of Memphis’ Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research.

Environmental activists say the TVA hasn’t been transparent about its decision to remove the ash. They also worry about the risk to South Memphis communities near the landfill and in the path of transport given that several workers who cleaned up the TVA’s 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee later died or suffer ongoing health complications.

“The TVA coal ash remediation plan is a terrible idea and another example of environmental degradation and environmental racism that we’ve been fighting against with Valero Energy Corporation and Plains All American in South Memphis,” Pearson said. “They’re perpetuating the same cycle of exploitation without information that’s happening repeatedly in South Memphis.”

TVA has paused its plans to move the ash and has yet to receive all of its necessary permits, the Commercial Appeal reported July 23.

Two resolutions asking TVA not to move forward on its plans are on two council committee agendas that were considered Tuesday morning.

One resolution, sponsored by Councilman Jeff Warren in the Public Safety & Homeland Security committee, asks TVA not to move the ash to any landfill in the Mississippi embayment, the underground water system that spans several states and includes the Memphis Sand aquifer.

The other resolution, which will come before the Memphis, Light, Gas and Water committee, asks TVA not to move forward on its plans, provide quarterly reports to the council on its Shelby County projects and “develop a transparent and public process that will eliminate any health risks to the citizens of Memphis.”

“The EPA has found that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase the risk of cancer or other chronic diseases and as a result, the residents of Memphis will be greatly impacted by this proposed plan,” the resolution says.

It is sponsored by council members Worth Morgan, Patrice Robinson, J. Ford Canale, Chase Carlisle, Edmund Ford Sr. and Cheyenne Johnson.