3:36 p.m. March 3, 2021: This article has been updated to say Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris opposes the pipeline.
This article was published first in Climate Conscious, February 26.
Memphis’ most legendary natural wonder is not something you can easily see, even though it measures thousands of vertical feet. It runs as deep as the Appalachian Mountains on the other side of Tennessee are tall.
Formed millions of years ago when the land cooled from erupting volcanos, an underground aquifer collected pristine water for centuries with protection from alternating clay layers that formed along the way.
Called the Memphis Sands, it contains an estimated 57 trillion gallons of water that is so prestigious that, in theory, it could be drunk right from the source — with no technical filtration. Just recently, this ceased to be the case.
In the wake of winter weather that wrecked infrastructure across the Southern United States, the Memphis utility company, Memphis Light, Gas and Water, experienced line breaks and pumping issues that depressurized their water distribution system. This introduced the risk of bacteria and other organisms to all 260,000 households in their service area. For eight days, Memphians could not trust the water that comes directly from their faucets.
When Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission discussions on an imposing crude oil pipeline coincided with the boil water advisory, many Memphians’ concerns about contaminated water were justifiably heightened.
The Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture between Valero and Plains All American — would not only run through Boxtown, a historically Black neighborhood in South Memphis neglected by the city government but also span the aquifer under little regulation.
South Memphis is not giving up. Like the aquifer beneath it, their fight for this land and its people goes back centuries.
How Boxtown Came to Be
From where Clyde Robinson stood between the winter elm trees and azure blue sky, it was like he was taking a walk in a state park. Except, he is not. Robinson is defending the property from Byhalia Pipeline LLC which wants it for construction. He has lived and worked there his entire life.
“My mother and sister, we were sharecroppers, and they gave us some land. The first couple of years, we got five to 15 bales, that I can remember. The next year, we got 20-something bales, the next year roll on around and they give us a little more land to work. We wind up with all these bales of cotton. And when the time to come to sell them … it still wasn’t a whole lot of money for cotton being picked,” Robinson paused,
held out his hands, and drew them back in.
“After you go through all of that, and it is being took away from you, if it ain’t never happen to you, you never understand the picture, you got to be in it to understand it.”
Robinson’s sentiment is something that archaeologists can track in the sediment. Deep down in the aquifer layers lie rocks from as early as 1,000 common era. This was when the first people of the Mississippi River bluffs began to lay down villages, eventually leading to the establishment of the capital of Mississippian Society — a complex culture of Native Americans, ancestral to modern nations like Chickasaw and Quapaw.
As the United States government removed indigenous people from the land where Memphis sits today, settlers converted the area between the Mississippi River and its bluffs to farmland. At least 19 African Americans were forced to work under ownership at a cotton plantation. Once emancipated, they formed their own community on the edge of what was then Memphis city limits.
Named Boxtown after the pieces of railroad cars that made up their homes, they became the sole stewards of the land as dirt roads isolated them from Memphis proper, which was nearly emptied itself as Yellow Fever raged. Memphis’ open sewers created mosquito breeding grounds that spread the disease. After public outcry, the city embarked on a long-overdue sanitation campaign.
Water pipes were extended into homes, and wells were sunk into the ground — leading to the eventual human discovery of the aquifer in 1880.
Boxtown did not get infrastructure, though. They got smokestacks.
While an industrial area sprawled around them, the lack of public transportation separated them from Memphis’ civil rights movement and the sanitation workers strike.
People like Pearl Owen Mixon lived without running water or indoor plumbing for 40 years. James Theadford, Jr. and Albert Lee Wright rode a horse-drawn carriage around a power plant to collect wood for cooking. Lucille Moore sat next to her window, which she stuffed with found materials to keep out the draft.
These black-and-white photographs show a place frozen in time, but don’t be deceived. They were taken in the late 1970s, when television reporters at Graceland covered Elvis’ death in full color — just 15 minutes away from Boxtown.
Resistance came in full force when political pioneer Minerva Johnican spoke to residents about a class-action lawsuit against the city for lack of services since their annexation into Memphis, and activists invited the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary to tour the community in an effort to gain federal funding.
In 1981, Boxtown finally received pipes, but neglect persisted as fossil-fuel burning, steelmaking, and food-processing industries pumped emissions through the entirety of southwest Memphis for decades. The environmental health disparity became as evident as that of income.
Elected to Tennessee state office in 1996, Representative Barbara Ward Cooper knew the concerns of the community well.
“When I was elected, and at the Allen Fossil Plant, the community was up in the air about not being able to put their clothes on the line, like you hang clothes,” said Cooper. The now-closed Allen Fossil Plant used to burn 7,200 tons of coal daily. “There are a lot of chemical plants down on the [Mississippi River] islands down there and have a lot of hazardous things. We had a company that was building batteries, and they closed down because they were leaving lead in the ground. In one area, we were notified by the state not to plant vegetables in area or yards, like tomatoes or okra, they were not allowed to plant anything because of lead.”
“I did receive about two years ago, from the University of Memphis, that it is the highest level of pollution in Shelby County, and Shelby County has the highest pollution in the Southeastern part of the United States. It is an environmental injustice.”
Volatile organic compound concentrations are higher than those in most industrial communities in the United States, according to that same University of Memphis report. The cumulative cancer risk associated with the exposure was found to be four times higher than the national average.
In each layer of the Mississippi embayment, water moves at different rates and directions, making it a challenge to understand this resource, according to the University of Memphis' Center for Applied Earth Sciences and Engineering Research (CAESAR).
In 2005 Valero expanded a plant to become the Memphis Refinery, where up to 195,000 barrels of crude oil can be produced a day. Kathy Robinson grew up with the refinery in her backyard. When she found out a proposed pipeline would be around four blocks from the high school where she graduated, she met with other alumni and formed Memphis Community Against the Pipeline or MCAP
. They learned that the pipeline would run about seven miles over South Memphis before entering Mississippi and then turning east, ending at the town of Byhalia. In total, it would span 49 miles and connect the Valero plant in Memphis to plants on the Gulf Coast.
“Prior to this, we didn’t really talk much about the environment,” Robinson said. “But when you look at the fact that so many of my friends growing up in school had asthma or when you would hear about some of my friends, parents, or grandparents dying early of cancer, and now we know why some of those things possibly happen.
When you see that haze in the area, and you hear that there were oil droplets, you know that gives you no confidence that Valero has the interest of confidence. They have no thoughts of the people that live there. When they say they want to be a good neighbor, their actions prove that they are not true.”
Just this February, amid frigid temperatures and unprecedented snow, flames pulsated above the refinery.
Fire was visible for miles. According to the company’s limited statement, the refinery needed to safely burn off excess materials to minimize emissions because of the cold weather.
Boxtown does not have a monitor that can measure the air quality in real time. When I asked the spokesperson about the air monitoring conducted, she only responded by saying their readers were “well below action level.” She did not elaborate on the action level. According to on-the-ground reporter Carrington Tatum, who has been following the pipeline project since the beginning for the investigative publication MLK50,
the flare up released hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen gas, known as sewer gas.
Two days later, an ice storm hit. As pipes froze, water mains broke across the city. Memphis Light, Gas and Water advised residents to boil water before consumption, and conserve water use in general. Snow created dangerous driving conditions, limiting access to grocery stores. Days later, as it melted, people were finally able to buy bottled water.
“I was speaking to my mother, and she said, ‘could you imagine if there was an oil spill and if had to depend on doing this for a long time?’” Kathy Robinson said. “I was telling her that if there is an oil spill, god forbid, this would be the normal. She just really hopes this pipeline does not coming. There are two types of pipelines. There are the ones that have already leaked and ones that will leak. ”
Robinson and her mother also question the future demand of crude oil — as the Biden administration pushes for zero-emissions vehicles and clean energy in an effort to mitigate climate change. They’ve asked Plains All American — the energy company that would own the infrastructure — how long the pipeline would be in the ground.
“We were told an infinite amount of time, but crude oil and fossil fuels, it won’t be needed for an infinite amount of time,” K. Robinson said. “What we’re seeing is just how powerful capitalism is.”
This image was taken just before Boxtown's annexation into the City of Memphis in the 1960s. Large, muddy holes surround the homes. (University of Memphis Libraries)
Just before COVID hit, Byhalia Pipeline LLC launched a community engagement campaign.
Given the community’s history, it was perceived as a campaign with mixed messaging
that seemed to prioritize the economy over the wellbeing of residents. According to The Daily Memphian
, the pipeline could carry as much as $21 million in crude oil a day.
The company hired a public relations firm founded and run by former Shelby County Commissioner, Deidre Malone. The first reports of the campaign boasted economic gains that would directly support Memphians, such as $500,000 a year to support roads and schools. It was later clarified that that would be the revenue generated from property taxes, which in turn support roads and schools.
Additionally, a campaign website featured promotional videos promising that Byhalia Pipeline LLC would work with landowners. As the company started talking to property owners in the area about land easement agreements, many agreed. Byhalia Pipeline LLC is not buying land from residents, according to their spokespeople. They are purchasing usage rights.
However, within the community, questions quickly surfaced as some landowners gave away their property rights for as low as $250. It was unclear to attorneys and residents alike what was told to people who sold their property, and whether they felt pressured to sign.
In response last fall, during an outdoor community meeting facilitated by Malone, things got heated. MCAP and Memphis watchdog group Protect Our Aquifer joined up to say that perpetuating environmental racism and risking water contamination was not worth the risk.
Since that meeting, information from the city, the county, and Byhalia Pipeline LLC became even less clear — even to council members and commissioners, forcing them to admit that they are unsure of the power they have in the matter.
The Ford family, who’s influenced Memphis politics for decades, are elected officials representing the city and county districts in which Boxtown resides, creating a confusing narrative as Edmund Ford, Sr. — on the city council — and his son Edmund Ford, Jr. — on the county commission — do not agree on the project.
Ford, Sr. has recently shared fears that the Byhalia Pipeline could result in water contamination like that of Flint, Michigan. He has co-sponsored a resolution that would symbolize — without city commitment — a council opposition to the pipeline. A council vote on the symbolic measure has been delayed twice. Meanwhile, at the County Commission, his son, Ford Jr., introduced a resolution, also pending, to sell two lots in the area to Byhalia Pipeline LLC.
On the day of the extreme winter storm that brought snow and ice to Memphis, the County Commission listened to a presentation from Byhalia Pipeline LLC. In order to view the presentation publicly
you have to scrub five hours and 27 minutes into a recording. Ford Jr. spoke without turning his camera on and conducted “a lightning round” of questions to save time and also “put some finality on things.”
“I just want to be real, we got a lot of copied and pasted emails by individuals, many of those may not be in 38109 [the Boxtown zip code]. A few don’t even live in Memphis, Tennessee or Shelby County,” he said, also mentioning city leaders received death threats with some of those emails.
“You don’t see the media or others putting, in my eyes, in my strong opinion, evidence a fair side for a vote … I just want people to be transparent.”
In an effort to write a balanced article with input from everyone at the table, I tried to contact Ford, Jr. I also tried to contact the offices of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Ford Sr., Plains All American, Byhalia Pipeline LLC, and Malone’s firm for an opportunity to weigh in. Additionally, I contacted Valero, who referred me to the campaign. They did not return my calls or emails after multiple attempts.
After the publishing of this article, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris publicly opposed the pipeline.
Aside from the information from the campaign itself, the public utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water, the city of Memphis, and Shelby County have provided limited statements outside of public meetings. Ford Jr. blamed misinformation on the pipeline construction and property acquisition on Memphis’ strained local news market. In reality, community members have relied on local journalism for basic information, because state and local governments have remained silent or vague.
When Plains All American spokesperson Brad Leone presented to the Shelby County Commission
, he attempted to set their case straight. However, his information did not elaborate much further than what can be found on the Byhalia Pipeline Connection campaign website
. He did specify that part of the reason the community does not know the exact safety plan of the pipeline is because the design is not far along enough yet. That process is informed as each section of the pipeline is designed and constructed, according to Leone.
He said that for each pipeline they put in, they work with cities to proactively train local first responders and hire a response team in the event of an oil spill or leak.
Leone shared confidently that based on 10 other existing pipelines in the Memphis area, including one operated by Plains, they could maintain the Byhalia Pipeline without incident.
However, in 2015, Plains operations resulted in a spill that leaked 2,934 barrels of crude oil near Santa Barbara, California.
Ford Jr. did not press Leone on it, but rather said he remains neutral in whether the pipeline is constructed.
“We have articulated for over a month that a state and federal permit were required,” Ford Jr. said. “You have acquired them. With the exception of concerns copied and pasted into emails, why are we here from a local perspective?”
This is only a valid question if government officials blatantly and actively ignore the concerns of citizens. For clarity on the exact role of local government in the matter, I called environmental attorneys and engineers. They believe the council and county have a lot more power than they know, particularly when it comes to protecting an aquifer from a potential pipeline leak.MCAP co-founder Pearson now rallies in front of the Lorriane Motel in front of the balcony, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He said King's spirit did not die because they are fighting for a brighter future. (MCAP Twitter)
To construct, Byhallia Pipeline LLC needed to acquire crucial permits: one from the state and one from the federal government. The permitting process was underway during stay-at-home orders in 2020.
From the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, state officials approved an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit, which examines development plans near streams, rivers, and wetlands. Their evaluation on bodies of water did not require a specific impact study to a subterranean aquifer because, as written in their statement, there was “no reason to believe” the possibility of it affecting the aquifer.
The pipeline project continued to clear their project on the federal level with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who determined Byhalia Pipeline, LLC met conditions necessary for a Nationwide Permit 12. The deputy chief of the regulatory division for the federal agency’s Memphis office told The Daily Memphian that the review focused on the project’s potential impact to surface waters.
Also, the Memphis District confirmed to me in an email that their authority is limited under the Clean Water Act because it falls to jurisdictions, and they do not have power to change pipeline alignments. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) calls their decision a disappointment.
“We think the Corps should have considered the impacts to the aquifer,” said SELC senior attorney George Nolan. He called me the same day that U.S. Congressman for the Memphis area, Steve Cohen, asked the Biden Administration to repeal the permit.
“In addition to the Nationwide Permit 12, the company is required to comply with all state laws and local laws, including zoning laws. So we’re in this situation, where no federal or state regulator so far has required anyone to analyze the impact of this pipeline to more than a million people. The pipeline company is relying on nation statutes that do not mention oil pipelines. They talk about natural gas pipelines, but not crude oil pipelines,” Nolan said.
SELC has worked with the Memphis-based organization Protect Our Aquifer or POA as public watchdogs for this limited natural resource that runs beneath the Mississippi River and across several states. With an increasing worldwide freshwater crisis perpetuated by a changing climate, they know the aquifer needs to be under sustainable care. In 2019, they successfully stopped the Tennessee Valley Authority from using the aquifer wells to cool a power plant. The impact stopped the threat of coal and ash residue contamination in the aquifer.
“What we’re trying to do is get the aquifer protected, you know it’s just hanging out there with very little regulation at all,” said POA president Ward Archer, who also serves on the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CEASER) Advisory Board at the University of Memphis.
“We don’t know if we’re taking too much water out or all these basic things. So when this thing (the pipeline) came up, we thought, ‘oh geez.'"
“In Boxtown, in the 38109 zip code, it’s going right through the Davis MLGW wellfield, which has some issues with part of the clay being absent there,” he said. “They have these things called wellhead protection plans for all the oil fields, which sort of outlines, you know, a zone around the wells where you can’t do anything, you can’t pollute all that sort of stuff. And MLCW so far, has just kind of laid down. You know, and we’re trying to get them to stand up, you know?”
The SELC and POA coordinated an evaluation by an independent hydrogeologist to analyze the risk of contamination into the aquifer by the proposed pipeline. In diameter, it would be two feet wide, about the width of a narrow refrigerator. The evaluation found that tremendously high operating pressures of oil pipelines like the one proposed have twice the pressure of a fire hose, which can spray water 30 floors into the air. This means that even a small leak could drip thousands of gallons of oil into the ground. Essentially, a crude oil release causes contamination over a long period of time. It can run several miles into the ground, compromising one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world that relies exclusively on groundwater for its municipal water supply.
Of equal concern is the proposed pipeline would transport oil under pressure within a seismic area known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, the most earthquake-prone on the east of the Rocky Mountains. Geologic history points to large-scale events with disastrous consequences. Since 1974, instruments that measure ground shaking have recorded thousands of small to moderate earthquakes in the area.
The United States Geologic Society estimates a 25 to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 6.0 and greater earthquake in the next 50 years. Cities that experienced an earthquake of that magnitude include Seattle, where it damaged and crumbled parts of buildings like the Starbucks headquarters building. That building is a former Sears Tower, just like the one in Memphis that was redeveloped into the Crosstown Concourse, a collection of apartments and businesses.
SELC and POA warned of the dangers in a brief to the City of Memphis, Shelby County, and MLGW officials on Feb. 4. In part it read:
“The risks associated with the proposed pipeline are difficult to overstate. According to the pipeline company, the pipeline would transport oil under significant pressure (1500 psi), and the pipeline would have shutoff valves every nine miles. Because crude oil pipelines operate at such tremendously-high pressure they can spew hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil through small cracks or ruptures. Therefore, if a rupture occurs in the pipeline, resulting from either human error or natural causes, it would be a recipe for an environmental and humanitarian disaster.”
It is unclear if city and county leaders are considering this environmental analysis, mostly because in recent meetings they have chosen to focus on eminent domain laws.
The term “eminent domain” is being thrown around a lot by residents and leaders alike. Attorneys for the pipeline have interpreted that Tennessee law considers a pipeline a public utility, which means they could use eminent domain to access the land they want. That is not true, according to the SELC and local attorneys like Scott Crosby and Sarah Stuart, who are representing several property owners in condemnation lawsuits filed by Byhalia Pipeline LLC.
“A private, for-profit company Texas oil conglomerate that has no public use, that doesn’t have a franchise, that has no authority to cross municipal streets is not a public utility,” Crosby said.
“A transporter of crude oil is dissimilar from a Telecom provider or a company bringing electricity or natural gas to your home or even gasoline to a Mapco station. This is crude oil, that is not for individual use, which is coming from Oklahoma, connecting across Memphis, over our aquifer and through an earthquake zone to a pipeline that runs from Illinois to the Gulf. It is not a public utility that may use eminent domain to take individual’s land against their will.”
Lawyers from the SELC and local Memphis lawyers are discussing with the City Council and its representatives the regulatory gap in protecting the Memphis Sands Aquifer. They are also proposing that the city council has a critical role in closing this gap through adopting an ordinance that protects the Aquifer. Even more importantly, through adopting this ordinance, the city council will be standing with its citizens in protecting this vital natural resource that benefits every Memphian. That is exactly what the people of Boxtown want to happen.
“I think that what it would take for the City Council to realize [our activism] is serious is for them to have an open mind,” K. Robinson told me.
“We have to make sure that we are putting them in a place and providing as much information as possible so that they can feel confident that the state has said it’s not their responsibility to protect our water, the federal government says it’s not their responsibility. So we have to make [the council and commission] feel empowered to say, ‘Well, okay, the decision is ours, and we’re going to pick the health of Memphians to protect them.”
Upcoming votes and discussions, as soon as March 2, will show the path local leadership takes. Rep. Cooper is also pushing for state intervention from Governor Bill Lee. On Friday, Feb. 26, Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis filed one bill on water protection and one bill on eminent domain with the Tennessee General Assembly.
As history has already proven, the community of Boxtown is resilient, and they will resist. Depending on the outcome of their action, we can only be hopeful that the aquifer will do the same.
After growing up in Memphis, Ashli Blow reported as a breaking news producer on politics and natural disasters for the NBC affiliate there. She now lives in Seattle, writing about environmental justice and climate change. This article was edited by Kate Mauldin, a lifelong Memphis resident, activist, and historian. The reporting was possible in part to the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. The institute promotes public dialogue about natural resource issues through programs that inform, empower, and inspire better journalism.