Former Vice President Al Gore joined the Memphis community’s fight against the Byhalia Pipeline – calling it a “reckless, racist rip-off” – at a rally held Sunday, March 14, at Alonzo Weaver Park in South Memphis.
“When the pipeline representatives said this is the path of least resistance, that was a gaffe because [they] told the truth accidentally,” Gore said before a large crowd on Sunday afternoon. “Least resistance? I see a lot of resistance here today.”
“The path of least resistance” is in reference to a statement that was made last year by a representative of Valero and Plains All American (PAA), two Fortune 500 companies that intend to build a 49-mile crude oil pipeline that would connect the Valero refinery in Southwest Memphis to another Valero refinery in Byhalia, Mississippi. The proposed pipeline is called the Byhalia Connection Pipeline (BCP).
The projected path of the pipeline has drawn criticism from activists and some local elected officials, who say the decision to run a crude oil pipeline through Southwest Memphis, which is a predominantly African American community, is an act of environmental racism.
“Why is it that the investments in infrastructure in Black communities are so much less than the investments in infrastructure in white communities?” Gore later asked. “A lot of this has to do with things that people in the white community, and I speak as a member of the white
community, have really not been fully aware of. But the blinders have been removed for many people.”
The rally was organized by the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP), which is a grassroots, community-based opposition to the project. Other speakers included MCAP co-founders Justin Pearson and Kizzy Jones, Memphis City Councilman Jeff Warren, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen and Clyde Robinson, a resident of South Memphis who is being sued by BCP for permission to build on his land.
The crowd, which was estimated at around 200 participants, included people carrying signs that read ‘Protect Our Aquifer’ and ‘No Oil in Our Soil’ while several people wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts, tying together the themes of environmental and racial justice.
“I feel that you have a lot of thoughtful, like-minded Memphians from all over the city here who are saying, ‘We don’t want our aquifer to be polluted,’” said Memphis City Councilman Jeff Warren in an interview with The Daily Helmsman after the rally. “We don’t want racial injustice, and this is completely racist.”
Despite concerns for the safety of the Memphis Sand Aquifer – which provides Shelby County with nationally recognized pure drinking water – and claims of environmental racism, which have been growing since the project was first announced in late 2019, representatives from Valero and PAA have maintained that the pipeline does not pose a major risk to the aquifer, and they have justified their chosen route in a statement by saying, “Of the individual parcels of property the project crosses in Shelby County, 62 of 67 are vacant lots and do not have residential structures.”
Additionally, BCP donated $1 million to nonprofits, charities and research centers across the Mid-South in 2020. Some of the donated funds went to the Coldwater River Nature Conservatory, the Marshall County Public Library System and CAESER, the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research Center at the University of Memphis.
“They throw money around at us,” said Protect Our Aquifer Executive Director Jim Kovarik, “but we at Protect Our Aquifer consider the Memphis Sand Aquifer the most valuable resource in Shelby County. They are accepting one-million bucks, which by the way is split between a pile of nonprofits in Mississippi and Tennessee and CAESER, in order to allow a company to put our drinking water at risk.”
Gore, near the end of his speech, returned to an earlier statement before departing: “They want to use this aquifer as much as they please, but now they have run into Memphis, Tennessee, which is not the path of least resistance.”