Clouds of smoke from the Valero Refinery blended with the clouds in the sky over Mount Pisgah – a neighborhood in Southwest Memphis. The smoke stacks from the refinery poked above the tops of the leafless trees as Romone Anderson was taking bag after bag of trash to his curb.
It was a Monday morning and a train had just finished rolling through, slightly visible between the trees behind his house. Following the route of those same tracks – who did not know until a reporter told him – is the path of the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline.
“We haven’t even been informed, and it’s running basically right through the back of our house. It’s really going to affect us and I want to learn what’s going on,” he said.
Anderson and his family moved into the home two years ago. Being a Chicago native, he is no stranger to declining water quality, but he had no idea that an oil company had planned to build a pipeline a few hundred feet from his house.
In an area that has been zoned for industries, spokespeople from Plains All American – the parent company of Byhalia Pipeline LLC – said that the planned route was decided as it was “the path of least resistance.”
“That’s some real racist shit to say,” Anderson said, shaking his head while reading. “I don’t think they’re right though. These people have been here for 15 to 20 years, and I don’t think this is going to be as easy as [the company] thinks it’s going to be.”
The “gaffe” has become somewhat of a rallying call to grassroots movements in the area, as well as to city, state and national representatives. On March 14, a rally was hosted by Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP), a Southwest Memphis group that has garnered national attention for their fight against Plains. That rally featured a range of speakers, from local landowners – such as Clyde Robinson and Scottie Fitzgerald, to national political figures – like former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen.
Held outside of Mitchell High School, where MCAP co-founder Justin Pearson graduated, hundreds of Memphians gathered to hear the speakers as rain clouds threatened to end the event early. However, after a few drops fell, the sky began to clear and Kizzy Jones – another co-founder of MCAP – said, “Don’t worry about it, God’s got it.”
A driving force for the group has been their faith. Each speech, rally and presentation opens with a prayer because – without God – according to Jones, “We wouldn’t be here.” The formation of the group was happenstance, with Kathy Robinson noticing an article and reaching out to Jones, but their impact has brought the proposed pipeline to the desk of the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commissioners.
On March 16, the City Council unanimously voted in support of a resolution that would allow local legislation to accept or prevent the construction of this pipeline, along with future pipelines, from crossing “streets, alleys, squares, highways or other properties within the corporate limits for laying pipelines and conductors or otherwise.” This was the first legislative move against Plains, but the ordinance requires two more readings and votes before it is passed. Council attorney Allan Wade expects lawsuits to ensue if the motion passes.
“The first time you try to stop [Plains] from going forward with their project, if they don’t agree with our analysis, we’re going to be in litigation,” he told the council on Tuesday.
The second reading of the ordinance by the city council will take place on April 6. On Monday, the Shelby County Commissioners voted on two resolutions regarding the pipeline. The first, Resolution 26, was a request for federal government intervention to review the permit that
Plains was provided by the Army Corps of Engineers. That motion failed to pass on a 5-6 vote, but – with two members away – Commissioner Van Turner Jr., a Democrat, joined his Republican colleagues in voting “no” to preserve the ability to bring back the failed resolution when more commissioners are present to earn the necessary seven “yes” votes.
The second, Resolution 29, was an approval of the sale of two county delinquent tax parcels to Plains. This motion failed in a 2-9 vote – preventing the company from building their pipeline through that land.
During the county commissioners’ hearing, Katie Martin – a spokeswoman for Plains All American and a cancer survivor – rebuked the assertions levied by the likes of Al Gore that the pipeline’s route is racist and endangers the communities that it will be placed in.
“We chose this route to minimize environmental impacts,” she said. “I would never want anyone to go through what I did and what those close to me have gone through. If I thought for one minute that my company and this pipeline was going to hurt people in Memphis, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.
“...I would like to talk about the accusations we have heard about us subjecting the community to environmental racism. We know that environmental racism is real. We have had to go through South Memphis to connect to the refinery. It was not a choice to affect one group of people over another. Additionally, 86 percent of the route goes through Mississippi where it crosses people with diverse means and backgrounds. We treat everyone with respect, regardless of where they live in relation to our project.”
This response came days after Gore’s presence at the MCAP rally and subsequent media appearances regarding the pipeline’s construction. In his speech, Gore called the pipeline a “reckless, racist rip-off.”
“It is reckless for the drinking water supply of Memphis,” he said in a press conference after the event. “It’s very unusual for a city, a city of a million people, to rely entirely on an aquifer for its drinking water and it’s being put at risk. [It’s] racist in the very clear sense that they chose a pathway through a low-income, historically significant Black community because – in (the oil company’s) own words – they thought it would be the path of least resistance. It’s a ripoff because the risk is all put on Memphians and the rewards all go to the shareholders of these oil conglomerates.”
As the MCAP movement continues to grow, so has Plains All American’s response. The company had already donated a million dollars to community organizations and continues to pour money into advertising and sending mass text messages to Memphians, calling on them to reach out to councilmen and women as well as commissioners.
Part of the money that has been donated has gone to the University of Memphis’ Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CAESER), a group that has been mentioned by the City Council to bring forth information about the impact that the pipeline could have on the Memphis Sand aquifer.
“We are definitely concerned about the relationship between Plains All American and the University of Memphis and the CAESER program in particular,” MCAP co-founder Justin Pearson said. “It is a near obvious conflict of interests having the agency that we trust to provide independence receiving money from a crude oil pipeline. We hope that attorneys, like the folks at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and folks who are independent of any particular group, are able to present their information and data to the benefit of the city counselors.”
Beyond the donations and advertising, the company has been utilizing a concept known as eminent domain. This is a legal power that grants the government power to take land and use it for public facilities, such as roads or sidewalks. Through this, Plains has claimed that their pipeline is for the betterment of the community and has offered compensation. However, landowners in the 38109 zip code do not believe that this outweighs the risk that the pipeline poses to their land.
“Everyone receives information in different forms — we want to make everyone aware,” said KeShaun Pearson, MCAP member and co-founder Justin Pearson’s brother. “There’s a reason those people don’t have technology. There’s a reason why those people are at an economic disadvantage and live in an economically different environment and climate than most other people. This is what pours into events like this. When you don’t have access to technology, you don’t have access to information like this. That’s due to redlining and eminent domain. It is due to historical legislation that has helped to oppress the people who have the least.”
The land — that Southwest Memphians have been and are continuing to fight for — has been passed down through generations. In the historic Boxtown community, an area where freed slaves built homes from train boxes, Linda Hayes and her sisters inherited some of that land after their father died.
After a flood forced her grandparents and father to move, they settled in the Memphis area. Once he grew up, he bought and developed land in the Boxtown community. He built the houses himself and placed a garden in the yard. That same garden, Hayes says, no longer yields the same produce it did during her childhood.
About a minute down the road, she will cross a set of train tracks, the same train tracks that run behind Romone Anderson’s property and will guide the Byhalia Pipeline through Southwest Memphis.
“I knew there was a risk that our land would be destroyed just like the beaches in California,” Hayes said. “They said that the pipeline is going to be near the industrial areas of the community, right by the railroad. I live one minute from the railroad. It’s not an industrial area. The railroad goes right through the community, it goes through the neighborhoods. People [at Plains All American] are making promises that are lies. The Byhalia Pipeline is a lie.”