By Tony Jones
MEMPHIS, TN — Life’s irony has come to full bloom in Memphis as Boxtown, a centerpiece of one of the city’s numerically poorest zip codes, has arguably become the city’s most important neighborhood as a frantic fight ensues to save the famous Memphis Sand Aquifer artesian well water supply.
The alleged environmental threat comes from the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, a 49-mile joint venture of energy giant Valero Energy and Texas-based Plains All American. Community activists and environmentalists say is classic racist corporate malfeasance that is simply too dangerous to proceed.
The pipeline snakes through the nearly blanket black Walker Homes, Boxtown and Westwood neighborhoods comprising the 38109 zip-code, with a short section curving through Mississippi. If completed, it will be placed above the water supply route serving 1 million citizens in Memphis and the Mid-South.
At the core of the issue is the legal battle underway in Shelby County Circuit Court Div. 1. Several Boxtown residents that are being sued by the pipeline’s owners, asserting eminent domain statutes. A second hearing is slated for later this month.
The latest development is a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court by The Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Memphis Community Against The Pipeline (MCAP), Protect Our Aquifer and the Sierra Club challenging the original permit granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Called a Nationwide Permit 12, it allows fast tracking of such projects. The company reportedly has gained permission from 97% of the residents needed to proceed. A favorable ruling would require a community-first process via the Environmental Protection Agency.
MCAP sounded the alarm about the pipeline with a protest rally in March, where former vice president turned climate change messenger Al Gore’s comment that the plan is “a racist, reckless, rip-off,” resonated on several fronts. The Memphis City Council has passed a resolution against it, and will be considering an ordinance to stop it. The Shelby County Commission has denied the sale of two tax delinquent properties sought by the company, but denied a resolution calling for federal officials to review permits already granted for the project. Moves are afoot in the state legislature, and the White House has been requested to step in by 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen.
Plains All American spokesperson Katie Martin has stated, “I’ve listened and our company has listened and tried to hear everyone’s concerns. We’ve routed this in the most responsible way possible. We’ve avoided environmental issues, we avoided landmarks and densely populated neighborhoods. We really chose this path because we were able to use the vacant lots, it wasn’t because we were targeting one group of people over another.”
The pipeline is to be placed 3 to 4 feet underground, and well above the water pumping delivery route, but what if it leaks Gore pointed out. “They say they can detect them but they don’t. Studies show they can detect less than ten percent of them, but it’s out of sight and out of mind, it’s underground.”
MCAP was formed by Justin Pearson, Kizzy Dunlap Jones and Kathy Robinson at a community meeting last fall at Mitchell High School. A Nashville resident in the public health field, Robinson was born and raised in Boxtown and Walker Homes, where she just returned from a community cleanup. “I’m a fourth-generation product of southwest Memphis. My father Robert Robinson was a deacon at New Gilfield BC in Walker Homes. As a child, I remember the church being in an uproar trying to stop the building of one-night motels on Third Street, and many other issues. We have been the dumping ground for this city for so many years, when I learned about the pipeline, I knew it was only right to do everything we could to try to stop it.”
She says, “I know everyone in the 38109-zip code is not against it, for economic reasons. But at what cost? This area is already four times the national cancer rate, and when Plains All American talks about jobs, they will be short lived, and for the most part they will not go to residents in this community. I think they’re only telling half of the story to residents that support it.”
Marie Odom, one of the plaintiffs in the Circuit Court suit, said at the rally in the park, “I thought eminent domain was for the public good, such as for sidewalks, not corporate profit.”
Their attorney Scott Crosby of the Burch, Porter & Johnson law firm followed, “Tennessee law does not allow a Texas oil conglomerate to take our neighbor’s land against their will, transport other people’s oil across the land they just took, never benefiting any Memphians, never serving any public purpose, never stopping in Memphis until it’s spilled and leaks into our water, all for the monetary benefits of shareholders and corporate owners from some other state. Our argument’s foundation relies on the unwavering premise that land and ownership is sacred and has to be preserved and protected. So yes, we are here to support all efforts to protect our clean water, and we are to support people’s rights, your rights to protect your land and this land against corporate plunder, indifference and greed.”
Returning home to Nashville after participating in a community cleanup in Boxtown, Robinson wonders, “Had MCAP not been formed, I’m afraid no one in Memphis or Shelby County would have known about it until the pipes had been laid in the ground. When the Boxtown community held independent meetings, none of the elected officials supported us when I started sending out emails except (District 86 Rep.) Barbara Cooper. I started emailing her in September, and the Oct. 17th meeting came after that. We formed MCAP at that meeting. But they (elected officials) have come on strong, we will say that.”
She said they were told at that meeting that the community should accept the pipeline as inevitable, but the entire Mid-South could potentially be very glad one day that they saw it differently. Says Pearson, “It’s a matter of conscience over contracts.”