This story is published in partnership with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
Mozell Smith is a breast cancer survivor with a hunch about what made her sick. Smith, who is in her mid-60’s, has friends and neighbors who have also fought a myriad of cancers. They all live in Boxtown, the Southwest Memphis neighborhood that has seen many industrial facilities spring up during Smith’s lifetime. “This neighborhood always gets the brunt of whatever the other neighborhoods don’t want,” she said.
Boxtown is 99% Black, according to U.S. Census data. Located just south of T.O. Fuller State Park, it’s an area cloaked in kudzu that climbs the rolling hills of a mostly flat Memphis. The community got its name after freed slaves used scraps of materials and wood from train boxcars to build homes there in the late 19th century.
In a five-mile radius around Smith’s church in Boxtown, near where Fields Road trails to an end at Boxtown Road, are at least 32 industrial facilities. To the west sit iron and steel mills; to the east, a pesticide manufacturer. A few miles north, between McKellar Lake and Nonconnah Creek, a Valero oil refinery pumps 195,000 barrels of oil per day.
Until 2018, the nearby Tennessee Valley Authority Allen Fossil Plant burned coal. A coal ash pond filled with waste material leftover from burning coal for electricity — which contains toxic heavy metals and radioactive materials — remains next to it. TVA’s own data shows that arsenic, a known carcinogen, was measured in one well at over 300 times the federal limit for drinking water.
Smith and her Boxtown neighbors have a new environmental hazard to worry about: In December 2019, subsidiaries of companies Plains All American Pipeline and Valero announced plans to build the Byhalia Connection oil pipeline through the neighborhood.
The pipeline’s route cuts through Boxtown, which sits northeast of the U.S. Highway 61-Raines intersection, then snakes through the southernmost part of the city, then turns 90 degrees east in northern Mississippi. It avoids the more direct routes, through the whiter neighborhoods including downtown Memphis, Midtown, and suburbs to the east of the city. The pipeline would cross over seven Tennessee streams, could jeopardize Memphis’ main drinking water supply, and could cause more public health risks for Boxtown residents along the route.
The companies are taking advantage of a fast-track permitting process. Neighborhood residents invited local officials to a community meeting, but none attended. Pipeline developers gave sizable donations to the Memphis NAACP chapter, which has remained silent on the project. Other community organizations that might have joined forces with Boxtown residents found their attention consumed by the pandemic and protests against police violence.
Nine months after Plains announced plans for the pipeline, about 30 people attended the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation’s first public meeting about the project. The meeting, held virtually Aug. 27 because of the coronavirus pandemic, was on a permit for water crossings in the state. That night, there was a tornado warning, and some residents reported they couldn’t attend because of Internet outages.
The public comment period ends Friday. The project could be delayed if Tennessee regulators reject the permit application.
Pipeline developers have gained support by touting economic benefits of the project. Jeff Cosola, Plains’ public affairs adviser, said in an email that the company is “committed to designing, constructing and operating the Byhalia Connection pipeline in a safe, reliable and responsible manner.” He also claimed there will be $2.4 million in “ripple effect benefits,” such as money spent at hotels, restaurants and gas stations during construction.
Local consultant Deidre Malone, the former president of the NAACP Memphis Branch, who confirmed she is a public affairs adviser for Plains, told Boxtown residents at a February meeting the project could generate 500 direct and indirect jobs, though she noted the pipeline was a “specialized construction project,” which suggests many positions would be temporary or require training.
To get access to the land they need, pipeline developers have said they have the authority to use eminent domain, a power wielded by governments — and increasingly, oil and gas companies — to seize private property for public benefits. Some residents said Plains threatened to resort to legal action for those who don’t cooperate. “They said it’s going to be [their] way or the highway,” said Samuel Hardaway, whose property is near the proposed route in Boxtown.
Environmental groups have long raised concerns about the permit program used to build pipelines such as the Byhalia Connection. Plains has been planning to use the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12), which allows companies to get a single federal permit for water crossings, rather than seek individual permits for each. It does not require that the company produce an environmental impact statement or notify the public at any point in the process, Sierra Club attorney Doug Hayes said. Often used as a loophole for fossil fuel companies to quietly gain federal approval for oil and gas pipelines, Hayes estimates its use has risen almost 50% since 2012.
“No one ever dreamed that the Army Corps would use the permit this way,” Hayes said.
The permit program faces major legal challenges, which has complicated pipeline construction across the country. Environmental groups sued the Army Corps over approving the Keystone XL Pipeline’s use of the NWP 12 permit, and in April a U.S. district court ordered that neither the controversial Keystone XL or any new pipelines could use the permit until the Army Corps assessed its impacts on endangered species. The Army Corps appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which temporarily reinstated the program while a lower court decides the case.
In August, the Army Corps proposed modifying and reissuing the permits, requiring even less oversight for some, citing President Donald Trump’s executive orders to speed up approvals of oil and gas infrastructure.
“[The Trump Administration] wants to punch through as many changes to environmental regulations as possible to benefit industry before the election,” said Jared Margolis, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is involved in the lawsuit over the NWP 12 permit.
Public affairs officers for Army Corps offices in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana referred questions to the Department of Justice because of the pending litigation. The DOJ declined to comment.
“Asking people to buy into something without giving them all the information is the fundamental flaw of these permitting processes,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.
The 45-mile project would link the 440-mile Diamond Pipeline, which brings crude from Oklahoma oil fields to Valero’s refinery in Memphis, to the 632-mile Capline Pipeline to transport oil from Illinois to the Gulf Coast. Most Boxtown residents found out about the project this year, via word-of-mouth, social media, or if a surveyor showed up on their land. Smith said she read about it in a church bulletin in January.
Around the same time, Byhalia Connection posted invitations to a series of open houses, where they offered glossy pamphlets on energy independence and the importance of petroleum in producing consumer products such as diapers and leggings.
On a Saturday morning in early February, Smith donned red lipstick and a fleece leopard hat to attend a meeting the Boxtown Neighborhood Association organized — the only community meeting not sponsored by Byhalia Connection. They invited local lawmakers, including the Memphis mayor and some city council members, county commissioners and state representatives. None showed up. Elderly residents filled the pews of White’s Chapel and fired off questions, pressing three Byhalia Connection representatives on health and environmental impacts.
The representative avoided answering many questions, but they did say why they chose Boxtown. “We took, basically, a point of least resistance,” said Wyatt Price, a supervising land agent for Plains.
Although nearly half of residents in Boxtown’s census tract have an annual household income below $25,000 a year, 61% are homeowners — well above the most recent average national Black homeownership rate of 47%, which lags behind that of white homeowners, at 76%, due to a history of racist housing policies. Many Boxtown residents own and live in houses that have been in the family since they were built — which in Smith’s case is five generations.
“You can’t say that too much throughout the city,” Smith said.
Polluted land, or a pipeline-related accident, could compromise any wealth Boxtown families have accrued through land ownership. “Families want to keep the land across generations,” said Hardaway. “If an oil pipeline is built, it makes it harder for them to make decisions about what they can build and how they can use their property.”
In north Mississippi, the pipeline’s proposed path juts through soybean fields and subdivisions. According to Plains, Mississippi doesn’t require a water permit. A spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality declined to comment.
Some residents along the route in Mississippi support the project — particularly white, more affluent landowners such as Richard Lee III, who attended an open house with his father and siblings. He said his family is excited to collect a payment on their 40 acres along the route, land they “haven’t had much use for.”
Others had a more difficult time deciding whether or not to make a deal with the companies. Ervin Pope, who is Black, is a warehouse worker who owns land along the proposed route. The property has been in his family since before his great-grandmother, who was a sharecropper, grew peas and corn on it in the early 1900’s. He and his brothers will receive a one-time payment above what he said is the property value of $48,000, though he wouldn’t say how much exactly.
“I don’t want anybody to be sick or hurt or dead because I’m trying to gain some capital,” he said. The pipeline could make it more difficult to sell in the future, too. “Once [people] find out a pipeline is going through the property, who wants to buy it?”
Plains All American has had a major spill in the past: The company faces criminal charges in California, where a pipeline ruptured in 2015, spilling 140,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. A 2017 federal report found Plains at fault for lapses in safety measures.
The area’s geology creates other risks. Memphis abuts the New Madrid Seismic Zone, the most seismically active area in the central and eastern U.S.
“It’s an environmentally sensitive area along the entire route,” said Deborah Carington, a geologist who grew up in Mississippi near the proposed pipeline’s path.
The pipeline’s average depth is only four feet according to Brian Waldron, director of the University of Memphis Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CAESER). He said pipeline developers “should account for or investigate the impact that an earthquake would have on their pipeline.”
But neither the company nor the state has plans to do a formal environmental impact statement for the project.
According to a 2013 study, the cumulative cancer risk from toxic air in southwest Memphis, which includes Boxtown, is four times higher than the national average, and driven by industrial and transportation-related pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde. As is the case with many communities experiencing environmental injustice, no public health studies focus specifically on health risks facing Boxtown residents.
Cynthia Rose, the daughter of a Boxtown landowner, is bothered that her family doesn’t know what the risks of the pipeline project could be. “I feel as though they are going to force this on our older generation, specifically my parents,” she said, “without true and full disclosure.”
It appears few elected officials share neighborhood residents’ concerns about the possible environmental and health risks. State Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Democrat, deferred to Malone, the Plains consultant, who deferred to Cosola, the Plains representative. Neither Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. nor Shelby County commissioner Edmund Ford Jr., who represent the area, responded to requests for comment.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said he is “not convinced” the planned pipeline route “takes into consideration the sensitivity of the environment, and particularly the vulnerability to which it could expose the Memphis sand aquifer.”
Even so, he’s trusting the review process. “I don’t see any particular benefit to my constituents but do see some risks,” he said in an email. “I expect those reviewing plans will weigh these considerations seriously before reaching a decision.”
Memphis and northern Mississippi organizations have not mounted a major effort in opposition of the pipeline, and two have received funding from the developers. The local NAACP branch announced on Aug. 28 it received a $25,000 grant from Byhalia Connection, LLC to “reduce blight, crime and other projects focused on uplifting the Memphis community.” CAESER received $250,000 from Plains, which Waldron said is for public education on groundwater.
A Plains representative said the company “is committed to giving back to the communities where we operate.”
Environmental justice activist and educator Frank Johnson said a true community partner would be more transparent. Johnson, who is currently fighting a company working to build a gas station on the site of a former school in another South Memphis neighborhood, said the jobs and other economic benefits pipeline developers promise don’t outweigh the pipeline’s potential harm.
“We have to draw the connection between the illnesses and the things that we’ve seen in the community and connect them to what’s coming with this pipeline,” he said. “There is a real danger, a continuous danger.”
Want to make your voice heard?
To comment on the TDEC water crossing permit:
Tennessee residents have until 4:30 p.m. Friday to submit feedback to the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation on the Byhalia Pipeline, the special water crossing permits regulators require, and the project’s impact on wetlands. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
To comment on the Army Corps NWP 12 permit program:
From Sept. 15 to Nov. 16, the Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments on its proposal to modify and reissue nationwide permits, including NWP 12.
Submit comments, identified by docket number COE2020-0002 and/or RIN 0710-AA84, by any of the following methods:
Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments.
E-mail: email@example.com. Include the docket number, COE-2020-0002, in the subject line of the message.
Mail: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: CECW-CO-R, 441 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20314-1000.
Leanna First-Arai is a freelance journalist currently based in upstate New York who is focused on environmental justice and movement building. Her work has appeared in Truthout, Sierra Magazine, and Yes! Magazine.