Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Frustrated Memphis residents to put pressure on pipeline developers at Saturday meeting

A view of one of the homes on the edge of T.O. Fuller State Park in the Boxtown neighborhood. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

This story is published in partnership with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

Byhalia Connection developers claim eminent domain, try to buy Shelby County Schools property for pipeline planned to run through a Black Memphis neighborhood.

For months, residents of the mostly Black Boxtown neighborhood have tried — and failed — to get  more information from the developers who plan to build a pipeline through their community, which sits not far from the state line.

That changes Saturday. Representatives from the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline agreed to convene at T.O. Fuller Park at 10:30 a.m. for a socially distanced meeting with neighborhood associations and residents concerned about the pipeline’s route, environmental and public health hazards and the lack of transparency from Valero and Plains All American Pipeline, whose subsidiaries are developers of the project. Two state lawmakers whose districts the proposed line would run through said they’ll attend, but most city and county leaders have remained on the sidelines.

The Byhalia Connection pipeline is slated to cut through South Memphis, including parts of Boxtown, Westwood and Whitehaven, on its way to Mississippi. The 45-mile project would connect the Diamond pipeline with the Capline pipeline to transport light crude oil from a holding tank in Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast.

The meeting, the second to be hosted by the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, was originally scheduled for Oct. 10. It was postponed after Plains said a staffer was potentially exposed to the coronavirus. In January and February, Byhalia Connection developers hosted five open house meetings, two in Memphis, two in Desoto County in Mississippi and another in Marshall County.

Since summer 2019, company representatives have been surveying land in both states and approaching landowners to get an easement, or the right to access land, that would enable them to build the pipeline. Now, Byhalia Connection wants to get an easement on property the Shelby County school district owns.

The company has also claimed eminent domain — a government power used to seize private property for public use — against at least 14 landowners along the proposed route in Mississippi, according to the DeSoto County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. The company has not responded to questions about whether they will also use eminent domain in Tennessee.

The green line marks the preferred route that the Byhalia Connection Pipeline would travel through South Memphis neighborhoods and across the state line into Mississippi. Map courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

On Oct. 1, a sheriff’s deputy served DeSoto County resident Chris Pilcher a complaint of condemnation in which Byhalia Connection asked the court to condemn a portion of a driveway Pilcher and his wife share with six of his neighbors. The “permanent right-of-way” would allow pipeline developers to access the property indefinitely, including for purposes of “constructing, laying, maintaining” and “patrolling (by surface or air), or abandoning and/or removing a liquid hydrocarbon pipeline.” As planned, the pipeline would run along his property line, just east of his house, where his children play.

Pilcher opposes the project. “We have no shortage of oil here, there’s no need,” he said. He added that he’s unsatisfied with answers he’s gotten from the company about how oil flowing through the Byhalia Connection might benefit local residents. Global demand for oil from January to July 2020 was down over 10 million barrels per day from the same time period in 2019. Because renewable energy options are becoming more affordable, major oil companies such as BP have estimated that demand may never rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

Still, developers are moving forward to finalize the route, and expect the project to be completed in 2021. Pipeline developers offered Shelby County Schools District $25,000 for access to a vacant lot it owns on Weaver Road. The pipeline developer’s “preferred route” passes an estimated 350 yards away from Double Tree Elementary School. In September, the offer was on the agenda at a capital needs and facilities committee meeting, where it generated about 15 minutes of discussion. 

“It’s insulting honestly that they would offer a measly $25,000,” school board member Michelle McKissack told MLK50/Southerly. “The fact that they thought we would just go along with it… It did not sit well with me.”

At the meeting, McKissack spoke about the industrial pollution around Presidents Island that southwest Memphis residents are already exposed to. “So many times areas that are neglected are easy targets for projects like this,” she said.

SCS administrators and board members leaned toward rejecting the offer due to community concerns about the pipeline’s environmental impact, mentioning also the low payment.

“I bet you there’s another route they can find that’s not going to run down a residential street,” said board chairman Billy Orgel before moving on to the next agenda item. McKissack said she thought the topic had been tabled. 

But Orgel, CEO of the wireless communications company Tower Ventures, brought up the offer again at the Oct. 5 committee meeting, to the surprise of other members. He suggested the school district sell the vacant lot to Byhalia Connection. It was an “opportunity,” he said, for the district not to have to “keep cutting the grass.” Orgel, who is the only white member of the school board, represents a district in the more affluent East Memphis.

“I didn’t think we were restarting this conversation,” responded board member Shante Avant, who represents southwest Memphis, a majority Black and lower-income part of town. Orgel suggested SCS staff “restart the conversation” with the pipeline developers and bring more information to the board’s next capital gains and facilities committee meeting, which has not been scheduled.

Southwest Memphis resident Samuel Hardaway, whose family has land near the proposed route, hopes the school district might stick with their original inclination to resist the offer. 

“It would give [concerned residents] some kind of backbone,” he said.

Samuel Hardaway, a son of the Boxtown neighborhood, stands for a portrait on Weaver Road as it approaches the Mississippi state line, near the proposed route of the Byhalia Pipeline. Photo by Andrea Morales

Since July, posts on Byhalia Pipeline’s social media accounts have shifted from focusing on energy independence and safety protocols to the company’s good corporate citizenship, including a series of branded Facebook and Twitter posts highlighting the financial support it would give local organizations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone is doing their part to help local economies and Byhalia Connection is no different,” the company wrote in a July 17 Facebook post about a donation it was making to Helping Hands. 

Between July and September, there were 17 posts on Facebook about a combined $100,000 in donations made to nine Memphis-area nonprofit organizations. Between December, when the page was created, and June, there were no such posts. 

Among the recipients: The local NAACP branch, which received a $25,000 grant from Byhalia Connection in August. Van Turner, the Memphis branch president and Shelby County Commissioner, said the organization plans to use the money for COVID-19 relief and other community programs.

Some donations have been to education initiatives. A video from Oct. 8 touts a donation of 40 Chromebooks to Mississippi students in partnership with Southaven, Mississippi nonprofit I-NSPIRE. “It’s a great honor to be part of this,” one parent said in the video. I-NSPIRE did not respond to a request for comment.

Byhalia Pipeline also donated $10,000 to SchoolSeed, a nonprofit that works closely with SCS. SchoolSeed founder Vincent McCaskill wrote in an email that the organization will use the donation to offer scholarships to area juniors and seniors and to provide internet access to families that fall below the poverty line.

McCaskill said the organization “has a 12-year track record of raising private resources for programs that federal, state and local government funding are unavailable to support.” He did not answer a question about whether the organization considered community health risks related to the pipeline. Some residents and local environmental groups have raised concerns about leaks or oil spills — especially in Boxtown, where people already face health effects from nearby industrial facilities.  

After South Memphis native Kathy Robinson read an earlier MLK50-Southerly story about the Byhalia Connection pipeline, which named some organizations that had accepted money from the developers, she went to the company’s website and found a list of organizations to which the developers gave community grants. Robinson said she was upset that local organizations would accept donations from a project that could “put the health and wellbeing of the people of southwest Memphis at risk.” 

Robinson’s family has been growing food in southwest Memphis since her great-grandmother was alive; she worries about an oil spill contaminating groundwater or affecting residents who rely on gardens for fresh fruit and vegetables. 

She’s angry at the pipeline developers and frustrated at the response from politicians she’d expected would help.

In September, Robinson started contacting her elected officials to ask why they hadn’t taken a stance. She said she emailed and called Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. and City Councilman Edmund Ford Sr.; the elder Ford sent an auto-response, and his son, the younger Ford, has not responded, she said. She also emailed U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, State Sen. Raumesh Akbari and State Rep. Barbara Cooper. 

Cooper, a Democrat, responded, copying her on a Sept. 17 email to pipeline developers requesting the follow-up meeting (which will take place Saturday). Akbari, a Democrat, invited Robinson to meet virtually with her staff on Oct. 7. Robinson said they talked about water quality concerns and that Akbari’s staff told her they would research potential environmental impacts.  

Cohen, a Democrat, told her he is “not convinced” the route “takes into consideration the sensitivity of the environment” or the aquifer. “Please rest assured that I will keep your thoughts in mind as I closely monitor this issue,” he said.

Blackburn, a Republican, wrote back to Robinson, saying “the concern you raised is a state level matter.” 

But it concerns both the state and the federal government. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is reviewing public comment before determining if it will issue a state water crossing permit on or before Dec. 23. Developers are also seeking Nationwide 12 Permits, which are issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and are facing ongoing litigation now in federal court.   

Environmental lawyers say that since 2012, these permits have been used as a loophole by fossil fuel companies to gain approval by seeking a federal water crossing permit intended for projects that would have minimal environmental impact. The Army Corps can decide whether to approve use of the permits without public process or producing an environmental impact statement. 

“Based on conversations with residents, company officials and state regulators, my understanding is that the laws are being followed closely,” Akbari told MLK50/Southerly in an email. “If all parties have come to the table in good faith, engaged in a public process and people still have serious concerns, then it’s laws that need to be changed.” As an example, she pointed to the Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide 12 Permit, which she said has “evolved in risky ways” under the Trump administration. 

State legislators have the power to address these types of concerns about pipeline projects, said University of Minnesota Law Professor Alexandra Klass, who specializes in energy, environmental and private property law. They can suspend the use of eminent domain for private companies building oil pipelines, as state lawmakers did during a dispute over the Palmetto Pipeline in South Carolina and Georgia. They can also propose new laws that redefine what “public use” refers to in a 21st century energy landscape, Klass said. 

“Maybe we don’t want to incentive companies to build oil pipelines [any more]” she added. “It’s hard without legislative change.” 

Most local lawmakers haven’t spoken publicly about the project. Commissioner Ford Sr. and councilman Ford Jr. did not respond to MLK50/Southerly’s requests for comment. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, and Memphis Super District 8 Representatives Cheyenne Johnson, Martavius Jones and JB Smiley Jr. did not either.

This is particularly discouraging, Robinson said, given that elderly Black residents in South Memphis, like her mother, are a loyal voting bloc. Elected officials haven’t spoken out on their behalf, Robinson said. “The silence is deafening,” she said. 

Community organizer Johnnie Mosley, who has been working with the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, said it took Cooper’s involvement to get Byhalia Connection to commit to another meeting. 

Cooper has not publicly opposed the project, and she told MLK50/Southerly she’s determined to help residents get answers to their questions. “I’m just making sure that the company is fair with all property owners and the people in the surrounding area,” she said.

A view of Horn Lake Cutoff on the edge of T.O. Fuller State Park. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Boxtown residents say they left the February community meeting with Byhalia Connection representatives without answers to many of the questions they posed, including alternate routes developers considered or whether the company would pay for a study on how an oil spill might contaminate the aquifer that provides the city with drinking water.

Boxtown Neighborhood Association member Marcella Shepherd invited Byhalia representatives to another meeting in March, but the company did not respond. Then the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S., delaying most in-person events.

Community organizer Johnnie Mosley, who has been working with Shepherd to plan the meetings, said the silver lining is that the delay has given the growing coalition of neighborhood groups time to invite more people to Saturday’s meeting. He hopes a broad range of individuals and community organizations will show up — including those that accepted money from the company. “I think they need to come out and listen to the concerns of folks that are going to be affected,” he said.

A SCS spokesperson told MLK50/Southerly the board has asked staffers to “research and gather more information on the environmental impact of the project” before resuming discussions about the offer, but did not specify what information about the pipeline SCS had requested.

“I think we should all be concerned,” said McKissack, who doesn’t plan to initiate discussion on the pipeline at the next committee meeting, but will address it if it arises. 

“Education is at the core of everything and if our children who are living in these communities are having to deal with environmental issues that children in other communities are not, that’s not right.”

INFORMATION FOR SATURDAY’S MEETING:

The community meeting starts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at T.O. Fuller State Park, 1500 West Mitchell, under shed #1. Byhalia Pipeline Connection representatives will be present to answer questions. Due to COVID-19, attendance is limited to 50 participants. A second meeting will immediately follow the 11 a.m. meeting for any overflow. Attendees, who are required to wear masks, will have their temperatures taken at the park, and social distancing will be enforced.