Representatives Cohen and Ocasio-Cortez Urge Biden Administration to Reevaluate Byhalia Pipeline Permit over Memphis Drinking Water Aquifer

April 15, 2021
Press Release
Lead 26 colleagues in asking fast-track permitting of oil pipelines in environmentally sensitive areas be reconsidered

WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) led a letter with 26 of their Congressional colleagues asking the Biden Administration to reconsider the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers use of Nationwide 12 (NWP12) authority to construct fossil fuel pipelines over sensitive aquifers and historic Black neighborhoods. Specifically, they ask the Administration to reevaluate the Nationwide Permit 12 for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline Project planned in Memphis. The project has generated significant community opposition and has received national attention as an example of egregious environmental injustice.

The letter, signed by Alan Lowenthal, Ann McLane Kuster, Ayanna Pressley, Barbara Lee, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Carolyn B. Maloney, Cori Bush, Earl Blumenauer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Emanuel Cleaver, II, Grace Meng, Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, Ed.D., Jerrold Nadler, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, Jim Cooper, Marie Newman, Mondaire Jones, Nanette Diaz Barragán, Nydia M. Velázquez, Pramila Jayapal, Rashida Tlaib, Raúl Grijalva, Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and Ted W. Lieu, reads in part:

“The nationwide permitting process allows applicants to obtain fast-track permission to cross rivers and streams, avoiding public input as well as project-specific scrutiny of environmental harm. While such a process might be appropriate if a project truly has limited impact, the threat to communities wrought by new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure makes the Corps’ use of NWP12 an inappropriate tool, particularly in a growing climate crisis.

“The proposed Byhalia crude oil pipeline is an unfortunate case in point. The pipeline route cuts through the historic Boxtown community, which got its name after formerly enslaved people used scraps of materials and wood from train boxcars to build homes there in the late 19th century. The southwest Memphis community—including Boxtown—is already burdened by dozens of industrial facilities, and community cancer rates are four times the national average. The pipeline would cross through a municipal wellfield that provides this community’s drinking water. Subjecting this Black community to more environmental degradation is wrong.

“The Corps’ February decision to verify the Byhalia pipeline’s use of NWP 12 perpetuates an unfair approach to siting fossil fuel infrastructure by cutting communities out of the permitting process. The Corps purports to have satisfied all public participation obligations for use of NWP 12 on the Byhalia pipeline in 2016—years before the pipeline was proposed. We must provide forums for communities across the country such as Boxtown. Their concerns must be heard and heeded. We believe the Corps must require an individual permit for large fossil-fuel pipelines, so that specific environmental and community concerns with each project are addressed.

“Your leadership is instrumental to protect the rights of our communities and ensure that they have access to clean drinking water and a livable climate. As your Administration continues its work to center environmental justice in our nation’s response to the climate crisis, we believe you should immediately reevaluate the recent permit issued by the Army Corps for the Byhalia Pipeline project and reevaluate the propriety of the use of Nationwide Permit 12 for new oil and gas pipeline infrastructure across the country.” 

See the entire letter here.

“We applaud the Congressional leaders who clearly recognize that we need a better process in place to protect vulnerable Americans from unnecessary and risky pipeline projects,” said Amanda Garcia, Director of SELC’s Tennessee Office. “The Biden administration has made it a priority to put environmental justice at the forefront of its response to the climate crisis, and we believe this project is a prime example of why federal action is required to protect communities that have been taken advantage by oil and gas interests for far too long.”

“We are thankful that members of Congress are speaking out against the environmental injustices that the Byhalia Pipeline imposes on Black residents of southwest Memphis,” said Justin J. Pearson, leader of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. “This is the moment for values to matter and voices to matter in Memphis and throughout our country, to choose people over profit. It is not enough to wish for justice. We must work for it—together. It’s time for the Biden administration to put its commitment to correcting environmental injustices into action.”

“It defies common sense for the federal government to allow private companies to fast-track risky projects, especially for a high-pressure crude oil pipeline that could impact the drinking water source for millions of Memphis area residents,” said Ward Archer, President of Protect Our Aquifer. “Representative Cohen and other Congressional leaders understand the importance of protecting our drinking water. This crude oil pipeline proposal highlights the need for a more comprehensive process that protects people’s drinking water rather than allow for-profit-companies to put it at risk for their profit.”

“Nationwide Permit 12 is a crutch to prop up the oil and gas industry in order to move antiquated, harmful infrastructure projects forward without involving the communities that would be directly affected,” said Axel Ringe, Water Quality Chair for the Tennessee Chapter Sierra Club. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignored the effect that spills and leaks from this dangerous pipeline would pose to surface waters and drinking water in Memphis and North Mississippi.”  

In addition to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the following organizations endorsed the letter: The Climate Reality Project, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP), Repairers of the Breach, Protect Our Aquifer, and Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.