Pipeline Project Draws Allegations of Environmental Racism

The project would run through wetlands and poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Clyde Robinson, 80, on his property in Memphis, Jan. 28, 2021.
Clyde Robinson, 80, on his property in Memphis, Jan. 28, 2021.
AP Photo/Adrian Sainz

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Clyde Robinson treasures the acre of land he inherited, a verdant space tucked into a cul-de-sac in a south Memphis neighborhood, surrounded by houses and trees beside a railroad track.

For more than five decades, he nurtured it while his relatives lived in a home on the property, then maintained the land after a fire destroyed the house. The 80-year-old retired cement mason pays the taxes and cares for the property in Boxtown, a neighborhood that began as a community of freed slaves in the 1860s.

Now he finds himself defending it.

Robinson's land is coveted by Valero Energy and Plains All American Pipeline, and their joint venture, the Byhalia Connection. They want to build an underground, 49-mile (78-kilometer) 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 used material dumped from railroad boxcars to fortify their homes.

Robinson isn't alone in thinking it's a bad idea. 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.

Robinson has refused an offer of $8,000 for an easement on his property and is fighting the project in court.

“My dad says, ‘How are they going to take what’s mine?’” said Marie Odum, Robinson’s daughter. “It’s just not fair.”

The Byhalia 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.

During a recent rally against the pipeline, activist Justin Pearson said the project reeks of racial injustice.

“Black lives matter don’t just matter when we get lynched by police,” Pearson said. “They matter when we are in our homes and our children are outside playing on our land.”

Pearson and others bristled when a Byhalia Connection land agent said during a community meeting that the pipeline developers “took, basically, a point of least resistance” in choosing the path.

Byhalia Connection spokeswoman Katie Martin said the comment doesn't reflect the company's views.

“What should have been said is that we really, truly look for the least collective impact to the community,” Martin said.

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

Robinson's lawyers say no statute in Tennessee gives a company the right to take property for moving oil from one refinery to another. 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 has 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.

Byhalia Connection representatives say 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 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.

Byhalia Connection has given more than $1 million to the Memphis community for various causes. But Robinson says no amount of money or talk will convince him to give up what's his.

Ambling across the land one recent sunny day, he picks up trash with a stick that he leans on to trudge up a hill. He talks about dreams of building a senior care center or a children's playground someday.

Leaning on his stick, Robinson looks down at the green grass, shakes his head, and compares his situation to slavery — when members of his own family were not compensated for working the land.

“The Bible says the evildoers will be with you always," he said, shoving his hand into his jeans pocket. “That's what this is. They want to come in and take."

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