Former VP Al Gore joins protest over plans to build pipeline through Memphis neighborhood

Climate

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (NewsNation Now) — Former Vice President Al Gore is speaking out against the construction of the Byhalia Connection pipeline in Tennessee amid complaints from residents and local activists.

Valero Energy and Plains All American Pipeline want to build an underground, 49-mile pipeline to carry crude oil to the Gulf Coast, which they say will bring jobs and tax revenue to the region. The pipeline would run through wetlands and under poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods like Boxtown, named after residents who used material dumped from railroad boxcars to fortify their homes.

Proposed route of the 49-mile pipeline

The connection would link the east-west Diamond Pipeline through the Valero refinery in Memphis to the north-south Capline Pipeline near Byhalia, Mississippi. The Capline, which has been transporting crude oil from a Louisiana port on the Gulf of Mexico north to the Midwest, is being reversed to deliver oil south through Mississippi to refineries and export terminals on the Gulf.

Environmentalists, activists and local politicians say the companies are putting oil profits ahead of the people who live along the pipeline’s path. Some fear a spill would endanger waterways and seep contaminants into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which gives Memphis its slightly sweet-tasting drinking water. The pipeline connector would traverse well fields that pump water from the aquifer into the water system.

In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Southern Environmental Law Center said the clay layer above the aquifer “has several known and suspected breaches, holes, and leaks.”

Opponents suspect environmental racism — the practice of placing toxic factories, landfills and other polluters in minority neighborhoods and Indigenous areas, where voiceless residents only realize the danger after people get sick. They say Boxtown, where homes had no running water or electricity as recently as the 1970s, was chosen because residents are Black and low income.

“We are engaged in a struggle that we must win,” said Al Gore during a rally on Sunday. “This pipeline project is a reckless, racist, ripoff.”

The land sits over an aquifer that provides drinking water to more than 1 million people. Environmentalists and the local Democratic congressman see an opportunity for the Biden administration to reverse the industry-friendly policies of former President Donald Trump.

Resident Clyde Robinson, who inherited an acre of land in South Memphis, has refused an offer of $8,000 for an easement on his property and is fighting the project in court.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and others also have opposed the Byhalia Connection’s approval using Nationwide Permit 12, which helps fast-track pipeline construction by allowing developers to skip an environmental assessment and public comment period on projects that cross rivers, streams and wetlands if they can show their project will have minimal environmental effects.

Project officials have reached deals with most landowners on the planned pipeline’s route, but a few holdouts have taken to court. The pipeline’s lawyers are seeking eminent domain, long invoked by governments to claim private property for public-use projects.

Circuit Court Judge Felicia Corbin Johnson said during a hearing Thursday that she has concerns about whether the pipeline company can claim eminent domain.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and others also have opposed the Byhalia Connection’s approval using Nationwide Permit 12, which helps fast-track pipeline construction by allowing developers to skip an environmental assessment and public comment period on projects that cross rivers, streams and wetlands if they can show their project will have minimal environmental effects.

Plains All American Pipeline — who has partnered with Valero Energy in the joint venture — said construction could begin within months, though the ongoing legal battle may delay that.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, has asked the Biden administration — which already has canceled the presidential permit for the much-disputed Keystone XL pipeline — to tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rescind the Byhalia Connection’s permit.

“The proposed Byhalia Pipeline would impose yet another burden on Black neighborhoods in southwest Memphis that have, for decades, unfairly shouldered the pollution burdens of an oil refinery and coal- and gas-fired power plants,” Cohen wrote.

Gore agrees.

“The national government could direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to retract the permit under which this pipeline was granted permission to go across this territory. They didn’t look at the safety of the underground aquifer … and they should take that into account,” said Gore.

Byhalia Connection representatives said the pipeline will make refineries along the artery more efficient and poses no threat to the aquifer.

“Our pipeline is going to be typically 3 to 4 feet underground, and the drinking water segment of the Memphis Sand Aquifer is far deeper than that,” said Katie Martin, the pipeline project’s spokeswoman.

Plains has owned and operated pipelines in Memphis without problems, and measures will be put in place to ensure the aquifer’s safety, Martin said, adding a promise of jobs and tax revenue.

“Our goal for this project is to safely and responsibly build and operate a pipeline that will be a long-term benefit to the community,” Martin said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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