The Commercial Appeal

Memphis mayor opposes pipeline

Strickland considers Byhalia a risk to aquifer

- Sarah Macaraeg

As an “unacceptab­le risk” to the Memphis Sand aquifer, Mayor Jim Strickland said Tuesday he will support local efforts to regulate the proposed Byhalia pipeline, “after careful review and detailed conversati­ons with environmen­tal scientists” by his administra­tion.

The statement also urges state and federal agencies to thoroughly evaluate the Byhalia Pipeline proposal with more scrutiny.

“I have great concerns that the Byhalia Pipeline would pose an unacceptab­le risk to our Aquifer. The risk of

a leak in the pipeline is real, and any leak is likely to cause harm to the Aquifer. It’s a risk we should not take,” Strickland wrote in a statement a city official said Memphis City Council received Tuesday.

The Public Works committee delayed voting for two weeks Tuesday on an ordinance that aims to address the risk of contaminat­ion opponents of the crude oil project say it poses to the Memphis Sand aquifer, which supplies drinking water to residents throughout Shelby County.

Regarding several permits under considerat­ion for the proposed pipeline to cross city streets, Strickland wrote, “We are not proceeding with those until we have a handle on our legal authority over the pipeline; therefore, a stay can be enforced, in part, by our holding those permits in abeyance.”

“Memphians deserve to have their drinking water protected,” Strickland said.

Legality of ordinance to protect public health, environmen­t challenged

The ordinance would require new undergroun­d infrastruc­ture projects to meet three criteria, according to attorney George Nolan of the Southern Environmen­tal Law Center.

“Number one, it’s not going to hurt the aquifer. Number two, it’s not going to disproport­ionately penalize neighborho­ods that have been treated unfairly in the past. And three, it’s not going to risk bankruptin­g the city,” Nolan said.

Plains All American Pipeline, which seeks to build the 49-mile pipeline in partnershi­p with the Valero Energy Corp., has not addressed three inquiries from The Commercial Appeal regarding whether the company has full remediatio­n liability insurance coverage in the event of a spill requiring groundwate­r clean-up.

“Protecting the aquifer and the drinking water supply, which is so important to this community, is something we take very seriously,” Plains spokespers­on Katie Martin said Friday. Introducin­g lawyer Robert Spence Tuesday, she told council members members Plains wanted “to have a frank conversati­on about what we think this ordinance means for


Spence, lawyer for Plains All American Pipeline, said the ordinance ignores the precedence of federal and state laws.

“Memphis is not a standalone jurisdicti­on,” Spence said. “This ordinance erroneousl­y claims the authority to prohibit that which is allowed, and has been permitted by the United States government and the state of Tennessee,” he said, alluding to the project’s permits at the state and federal level — for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the subject of a federal lawsuit, filed by multiple Memphis advocacy organizati­ons.

Spence also described the ordinance’s path to a vote as “troubling” because it “did not emanate from the normal processes of city of Memphis government, using the profession­al staff, and the in-house, experts who routinely draft ordinances”.

Safe Drinking Water Act: ‘Active protection’ from public, civic leaders

Of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmen­tal Protection Agency states, “The public is responsibl­e for helping local water suppliers to set priorities, make decisions on funding and system improvemen­ts, and establish programs to protect drinking water sources.”

In the EPA document Understand­ing the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency also states, “Water systems across the nation rely on citizen advisory committees, rate boards, volunteers, and civic leaders to actively protect this resource in every community in America.”

Dr. Jeff Warren, councilman and cosponsor of the ordinance, said Memphis City Council isn’t acting in opposition to federal law but rather fulfilling the mandates of the federal Clean Water Act.

“That specifically says local government­s are the ones who are responsibl­e for protecting their drinking water. So that’s why we’re doing this, because that’s what the federal law tells us to do,” Warren said.

In the two weeks before the vote, Warren said supporters of the ordinance will be addressing questions he’s received from the Greater Memphis Chamber on behalf of businesses and from the public utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water regarding its gas lines.

“What we’re trying to do is to come up with an ordinance that provides protection for the aquifer, long term. And we also want to make sure that we’re looking at any local business concerns that somehow we inadverten­tly haven’t taken care of,” said Warren.

Justin J. Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, said the coalition of groups working to see the ordinance passed has secured legal representa­tion “not if, when the city is sued if it passes the ordinance. Because that was the threat today, to stop us from protecting our drinking water.”

Warren’s co-sponsor Edmund Ford, Sr. invoked the possibilit­y of a lawsuit during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

According to Pearson, advocates are unfazed and expect elected officials to stay the course, particular­ly given contaminat­ion that’s already reached the aquifer.

“We don’t want the fear of this billion-dollar company’s bullying, to prevent our leaders from doing what’s just and what’s right,” he said.

“Today, there is not a single person on the planet who is responsibl­e for protecting Memphis drinking water from any contaminat­ion. That should scare every person in the city and in this region. It is imperative that our local government steps in to fill this gap out of care for the millions of people who are alive now and who will live in this area.”

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 ?? BRANDON DAHLBERG / FOR COMMERCIAL­APPEAL.COM ?? Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II speaks to the attendees of a community rally against the Byhalia Connection pipeline on Sunday, April 18, 2021, in Memphis.
BRANDON DAHLBERG / FOR COMMERCIAL­APPEAL.COM Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II speaks to the attendees of a community rally against the Byhalia Connection pipeline on Sunday, April 18, 2021, in Memphis.

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