Pipeline Builder Agrees to Halt Eminent Domain Lawsuits

The company plans to explore alternatives to the current route.

Clyde Robinson, 80, speaks with a reporter while standing on his land, Memphis, Jan. 28, 2021.
Clyde Robinson, 80, speaks with a reporter while standing on his land, Memphis, Jan. 28, 2021.
AP Photo/Adrian Sainz, File

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A company seeking to build a disputed oil pipeline over an aquifer that provides drinking water to 1 million people agreed verbally Tuesday to stop pursuing lawsuits against Tennessee property owners who refused to sell access to their land for construction.

Plains All American Pipeline spokesman Brad Leone said the company will put an agreement in writing with the Memphis City Council to set aside lawsuits filed against property owners fighting the Byhalia Connection pipeline. Leone spoke at a council committee meeting in which members discussed a proposed city law making it difficult for the pipeline to be approved and built.

Plains is part of a joint venture with Valero Energy to build the Byhalia Connection, a 49-mile (78-kilometer) underground pipeline linking 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 Coast.

Plains and Valero say the project will bring needed jobs and tax revenue to the Memphis area. Byhalia Connection has secured permission from Tennessee and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the pipeline.

The planned route would take the pipeline over the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provides slightly sweet drinking water to 1 million people the Memphis area. It is part of a large aquifer system that lies beneath eight states and provides water for farms, factories and homes.

Environmentalists, lawyers, activists and politicians who oppose the pipeline are worried an oil spill would cause contaminants to seep into the aquifer and endanger Memphis' drinking water. In a letter to the Army Corps, the Southern Environmental Law Center said the clay layer above the aquifer “has several known and suspected breaches, holes, and leaks.”

Activists also are upset that the pipeline would run through poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in south Memphis that for decades have dealt with environmental concerns such as air and ground pollution. Community members have organized weekend rallies attended by pipeline opponents such as former Vice President Al Gore.

Most property owners along the path of the pipeline signed deals granting Byhalia access to their land. Property owners who haven’t agreed to receive payment in return for easements on their land have been sued, with the pipeline company’s lawyers trying to use eminent domain rights to claim property.

A hearing had been set for May 14 for a judge to hear arguments about whether Byhalia has a legal right to take the land.

Leone said the cases would be dismissed and the pipeline company plans to explore alternatives to the current route.

“A major part of that pause is not moving forward with the eminent domain lawsuits as mentioned,” Leone told the committee. “That's absolutely something that we will agree to do.”

Council members then delayed vote on a proposed ordinance establishing a board to approve or deny construction of underground pipelines that transport oil or other potentially hazardous liquids near wells that pump millions of gallons of water daily from the aquifer.

Leone did not say the company would refrain from seeking easements with other property owners while the ordinance is delayed.

“We want our drinking water and our communities protected and we don't want the pipeline company to continue misusing eminent domain to take land,” said Justin Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.

Pipeline opponents are backing the ordinance. But city council attorney Allan Wade said he has concerns about its legality.

Byhalia Connection said the ordinance would hurt local business and it would likely sue if the law is passed. A vote is not expected until at least July.

Byhalia has said the pipeline would be built a safe distance from the aquifer, which sits much deeper than the planned pipeline route. The company said the route was chosen after it reviewed population density, environmental features and historic cultural sites. Byhalia has attempted to build goodwill within Memphis by donating $1 million to local causes.

Byhalia also has said the pipeline route was not driven by factors such as race or class. The company has denied accusations of environmental racism that emerged after a Byhalia land agent said during a community meeting that the developers “took, basically, a point of least resistance” in choosing the pipeline’s path.

Pipeline opponents are fighting the project on several fronts. A federal lawsuit is challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the pipeline under a nationwide permit, and the Shelby County Commission has refused to sell to the pipeline builder two parcels of land that sit on the planned route.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, and about two dozen other members of Congress sent a letter asking the administration of President Joe Biden to reconsider the Army Corps' permit approval.

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