Environmental Racism Runs Deeper than Memphis’ Water Source

An energy company wants to build a pipeline above a natural aquifer in an area where earthquakes can happen.

Ashli Blow
Feb 26 · 18 min read
In Boxtown, two men sit on a horse-drawn carriage after collecting wood to warm their houses. The year was 1960, when power plant industries developed rapidly across the United States. It brought electricity to thousands, but Boxtown itself still did not have such reliable energy. After decades of pollution, now, Byhalia Pipeline LLC wants to develop infrastructure that would carry crude oil there. Credit: University of Memphis Libraries, Ken Ross
The Mississippi River is undeniably Memphis’ most well-known body of water. The subterranean Mississippi embayment runs below thousands of feet below it. Residents, businesses, and farmers rely on the aquifer in the embayment for clean water. Image of downtown Memphis, as captured by the writer.

“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.”

Lucielle Moore sits in front of a window in her home. On the back of the picture, someone wrote, she “put stuffing around her window to keep out the draft.” Credit: University of Memphis Libraries, Larry J. Coyne, 1979
This image was taken just before Boxtown’s annexation into the City of Memphis in the 1960s. Large, muddy holes surround the homes. Credit: University of Memphis Libraries
Pearl Owen Mixon’s neighbor Alma Adams stands on the porch of her house next to a washing machine. Neither of them had running water for most of their life. Image was taken in 1979. Credit: University of Memphis Libraries, Larry J. Coyne.
A map created by the Byhalia Connection campaign shows that the new pipeline would connect two existing crude pipelines; The Diamond Pipeline and The Capline Pipeline. According to the campaign, is subject to change.
The Mapping Inequality project at the University of Richmond published the 1930 map from the City of Memphis, which redlined the majority of west of the city, describing it as hazardous and segregated. Click to see the image overlayed over the modern map of Memphis.
A map created by the writer in Google Earth overlays data from the Mapping Inequality project. When the redlining map was created, Memphis had not annexed Boxtown. However, it can be reasonably concluded that Boxtown would have been redlined as it is west of Third Street. Nearly everything that is part of Memphis proper is west of Third Street is redlined.

“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. ”

MCAP co-founders and the Boxtown community shared their concerns at a meeting. Malone encourages them to “come to the table.” People shouted back that the company is not listening to them.
Protect Our Aquifer Director Jim Kovarik and President Ward Archer attended the meeting to present their myriad of environmental concerns.
MCAP co-founder Justin J. Pearson spoke at the meeting. “Our uncles have diseases because our air is poison. If somebody had fought against Valero or strong enough to fight some decades ago maybe, we wouldn’t be here. We have to fight now.
Celebrity influences such as Jane Fonda and Danny Glover condemned the pipeline on social media, leading to an influx of emails to the city of Memphis government to oppose the project.
The Byhalia Pipeline Connection campaign produced videos about safety and being a good neighbor. Most community members don’t believe it provides enough safety information and clear direction of construction.
The layers of clay are made of silt, gravel, sand, and clay deposited by rivers and wind. In each layer of the Mississippi embayment, the water moves at different rates and directions, which makes understanding this resource very challenging, according to the University of Memphis’ Center for Applied Earth Sciences and Engineering Research (CAESAR).
This diagram shows the maximum pipeline depth in an area with the protective clay layer above the aquifer. Click for PDF. Image: CAESAR.

“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.

A map created by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) shows the MLGW’s Davis Wellhead near Boxtown. Scientists have found an inconsistency with and even the absence of protective clay layers near the wellhead.
In an independent evaluation by Adaptive Groundwater Solutions LLC, figures show potential contamination of the Memphis Sands Aquifer that could happen if a pipeline leaked crude oil. Time travel calculations vary based on various scenarios. It could take as little as four years to reach the aquifer. Clean-up efforts that could prevent contamination are expensive and difficult.
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. (Image credit: MCAP Twitter)

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Ashli Blow

Written by

Ashli is a writer in Seattle, who talks with people about the environment, health, and transportation. ➡️ ashliblow.com

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Ashli Blow

Written by

Ashli is a writer in Seattle, who talks with people about the environment, health, and transportation. ➡️ ashliblow.com

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow