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Activists worry Byhalia pipeline project will be revived under new legislation

Published: Mar. 6, 2022 at 2:43 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Could the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project be revived?

Tennessee lawmakers are considering a bill that environmental activists say would make it easier to build the pipeline and others despite local opposition.

The Byhalia pipeline was one of Memphis’s most controversial environmental issues.

The pipeline would have connected the Valero oil refinery in south Memphis to Byhalia, Mississippi.

Part of the pipeline would have passed through low-income Black neighborhoods in south Memphis, and there were fears the pipeline would contaminate the Memphis sand aquifer, where the city gets its drinking water if it leaked.

The company that wanted to build the pipeline, Plains All American, insisted it was safe.

But after months of fierce opposition, including from former Vice President Al Gore, the company canceled the project last July.

It marked a victory for environmental activists like Justin Pearson, the president of Memphis Community Against Pollution.

But now he worries the victory may be short-lived.

“The reality is we knew billion-dollar corporations don’t go down quietly or easily and anticipated that they would do something else,” said Pearson.

He’s concerned about House Bill 2246 by State Representative Kevin Vaughan of Collierville.

The bill was introduced in January, calling for “a study of the current infrastructure of utilities operating in this state, including pipelines or transmission lines used to produce or distribute a source of energy such as gas or oil, to determine what improvements to the infrastructure are needed to attract development and investment to this state.”

However, an amendment was introduced last week that changes the bill dramatically.

Vaughan says his bill, as amended, would preempt localities from creating zoning laws that prohibit the creation of critical infrastructure such as pipelines through their communities.

“We’re seeing now how we have issues with our supply chain, particularly due to international events,” Vaughan told his colleagues in a subcommittee hearing last week. “This is a situation where it’s bigger than just a community. This is vital to our nation’s infrastructure.”

Pearson says the bill could undo the victory he and others fought so hard for last year.

“We are all deeply concerned that this legislation is going to allow for the creation of the Byhalia pipeline, but also other pipelines without zero local control over zoning that would protect communities and protect drinking water sources,” said Pearson.

Sarah Houston, the executive director of Protect Our Aquifer, said she’s also concerned.

“This bill would take away local power from all 95 counties in the state and give that power to oil and gas companies. Local governing bodies wouldn’t even be able to pass resolutions making a public statement like what Memphis City Council did to formally voice their opposition to the Byhalia Pipeline,” said Houston. “There are also questions about its legality - first amendment rights, public and private property rights, conflicts with the Tennessee State Constitution, and even federal laws that enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

The bill is set to go before the Tennessee House and Senate commerce committees on Tuesday.

Pearson says he and others are hoping to speak to lawmakers when the bill is brought up.

Action News 5 reached out to Plains All American to see if they support the legislation and to ask whether they had plans to revisit the Byhalia pipeline project. A company spokesman has not yet responded.

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