City Council delays vote protecting Memphis aquifer as threat of lawsuit from pipeline company looms

Updated: Apr. 20, 2021 at 6:37 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - On Tuesday, Memphis City Council members were scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance adding protections and regulations to pipelines built on top of the Memphis sand aquifer, but in an unexpected move, the council delayed the vote.

The proposed city ordinance would essentially make it impossible to build an oil pipeline through Memphis without getting special permit approval, and create a much more difficult process for the controversial proposed Byhalia Pipeline.

City Council members decided they need more information before they make a final vote.

Proposed City of Memphis Ordinance 5782 would not allow an oil pipeline to be built within 1,500 feet of any school, place of worship, park, residence or recreation center without special permit approval.

If passed, the ordinance would set back efforts to build the 49-mile Byhalia Pipeline cutting through the predominantly Black Boxtown Neighborhood and sitting on top of the fresh drinking water in the Memphis sand aquifer.

“This issue is about future generations as well as the protection of our aquifer and our drinking water,” said Justin J Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.

The ordinance would also create an underground infrastructure review board requiring Aquifer protections, protecting predominantly Black neighborhoods from environmental racism and proving financial responsibility before approving construction.

Leaders from Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, who have organized numerous rallies and protests opposing the Byhalia Pipeline, spoke in favor of the ordinance.

“This controversy about the Byhalia Pipeline has highlighted a crazy regulatory gap,” said George Nolan, with Southern Environmental Law Center. “No one is minding the store as far as protecting the aquifer is concerned.”

Plains All American, the company behind the joint venture Byhalia Pipeline with Valero Energy Corporation, opposed the ordinance.

In their response, a lawyer representing the company said the ordinance would be in violation of state and federal law and claimed lawsuits against the city would follow.

“It’s dead on arrival. And if passed, will without question lead to litigation. And those of you who know me, you understand that is not an empty vote,” said Robert Spence, the lawyer representing Plains All American.

In the end, City Councilman Dr. Jeff Warren pulled the ordinance for consideration for two weeks to look over the legalities of the ordinance and to see how it might inadvertently affect local businesses.

Ward Archer, Protect Our Aquifer President and Founder, says they’ve been fighting for an ordinance like this for years.

“They are game-changers because we really don’t have any proper management of that now.,” said Archer. “It would be different if we didn’t get our water from the ground. But we do.”

Also new Tuesday, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland sent a letter to Memphis City Council saying he opposes the Byhalia Pipeline and believes the pipeline poses a risk to the aquifer.

Strickland says the city will not proceed with permits for the pipeline to cross city streets creating a stay in the process.

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