Rallying a Community Around Justice

Memphis, Tennessee

Environmental hazards have always hit underserved communities and people of color disproportionately, and the climate crisis is no different. The proposed Byhalia Pipeline was set to play out in this devastatingly predictable manner when the Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP) coalition organized to rally the community against the plan. 

As part of the coalition, the Memphis and Nashville chapters of The Climate Reality Project pushed for legislation to protect the local aquifer, which was threatened by the pipeline and which provided clean drinking water to Memphis and the region.

The coalition was up against powerful interests, but their determination proved even more powerful. In July 2022, MCAP and the Memphis community celebrated the one-year anniversary of the defeat of the Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Byhalia Pipeline Project. 

As Climate Reality Southeastern Climate Justice Organizer and Memphis and Mid-South Chapter Co-Founder Duffy-Marie Arnoult detailed the steps to success, she broke down the hard work of organizing into very human components:

"Show up. Listen, ask questions and engage. Offer your help when and where it’s needed. Stand with the community and support their leadership. Show up together. Through establishing authentic relationships, we build power to win."

    Want to learn more about the Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP)?

    In Their Own Words

    What was the problem you saw?

    It starts with the proposed Byhalia Pipeline in 2021.

    The project began as a joint venture between Plains All American Pipeline, LP and Valero Energy Corporation to build and transport crude oil along a 49-mile pipeline from the Valero Memphis Refinery to an export terminal in Byhalia, Mississippi. As planned, the pipeline would pass through predominantly Black neighborhoods in Memphis like Boxtown – a neighborhood first formed by formerly enslaved people – and directly over the Memphis Sand aquifer, which provides pristine drinking water to the city.

    The project – fast-tracked for approval by the state and US Army Corps of Engineers – quickly became a poster child for the environmental racism many communities of color still live with. Residents of the 38109 zip code, where the pipeline would pass through, were already breathing toxic air pollution billowing out of the same Valero refinery just upwind and living with four times the national cancer risk, according to a 2013 study. And with Valero coming to the project with a troubling history of oil spills, concerns were high that leaks would poison the city’s water.

    Then came the threat of eminent domain, with the developers poised to force the sale of land parcels along the proposed route. Ultimately, every aspect of the proposed pipeline was antithetical to accelerating a just transition to clean energy.

    What was your idea/insight to solve it and the end result/vision you wanted to achieve?

    When local groups and activists came together to oppose the pipeline, galvanized by Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), something amazing happened. The activists won. After the city council voted in support of a resolution opposing the project and a series of delays, in July, developers announced they were no longer pursuing the project. And while the companies never mentioned local opposition, as local activist and MCAP President Justin J. Pearson said, “We've shown them that we aren't the path of least resistance. We are the path of resilience."

    Why is this solution important to your country and community? 

    When The Byhalia Pipeline project was canceled on July 2, 2021, the local organizers and activists who had spent many months fighting the project met at Alonzo Weaver Park for a celebration; this year, they once again gathered to celebrate in the same spot. The fight is far from over, but the victory proved that a Black-led grassroots movement in Memphis, Tennessee could go up against a billion-dollar oil company and win. 

    What were the biggest challenges you faced/ran into? 

    The biggest challenge is the ongoing threat to Memphians. This spring, Tennessee lawmakers rewrote an innocuous bill (SB2077 in the state Senate and HB 2246 in the state House) to study energy infrastructure to effectively prevent local communities from having any say in pipelines and other gas and oil facilities built in their back yard.

    Along with the assault on basic notions of democracy and community control, the bill felt like a huge slap in the face to activists like Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), one of the key groups in organizing Memphis residents last year to stop the proposed Byhalia pipeline.

    How did you mobilize people to take actions?

    The victory, as well as the continuing challenges, have mobilized people to take action. Along with citizens and activists from all over the state, members of Climate Reality’s Memphis and Nashville chapters showed up to Tennessee State Legislature meetings to speak out against the bill. Two of these chapter members – Allison Stillman and Paul Klein – waited for an incredible five hours to have their say. 

    When they did, they made sure to make their testimony count. As Allison described it:

    “I spoke about this bill taking away my freedom to choose, my rights as a property and business owner, and reminded them that they were elected by people like me to protect my interests, not outside interests. While we didn’t get the desired vote again, we made a difference – and change happens in working together in coalition with multiple groups. The dream is to one day create a world where we put people above profits. People power is the way forward!”

    Who were key stakeholders/partners that worked with you?

    Local groups and activists including Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), Protect Our Aquifer, and Sierra Club jumped into the fight along with local Climate Reality chapters in Memphis and Nashville, enjoining lawsuits, pressuring the Memphis city council and mayor, and enlisting Congressman Steve Cohen to ask the Biden Administration to block the pipeline.

    Voices beyond Memphis also got involved, raising the issue on the national stage. Former Vice President Al Gore called the project, “a reckless, racist, and a rip-off” and Reverend Dr. William Barber II and Reverend Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign hailed it as “a textbook case of environmental racism, injustice, and environmental degradation.”

    What insight, ideas, or suggestions would you offer someone looking to take action in a similar way?

    “My advice to other activists is: know your audience if you plan to speak. Try to speak your truth to their power in a way that is relatable and not too antagonistic. But be firm and confident that you are on the right side of history on the issue. Whenever possible, try to personally meet and cultivate relationships with your legislators. I would also like to encourage all of our members to network, and to build a coalition with other local environmental groups who are concerned about similar issues. We had folks from more than a half dozen different environmental groups all sitting together in the House chambers-a truly formidable force for good!”

    – Climate Reality Memphis and Mid-South Chapter Member Paul Klein

    How did this project you created promote equity or justice in your community?

    The pipeline project was a perfect example of an environmental injustice. The proposed pipeline route would have cut through several Black communities in southwest Memphis including the Boxtown community, named after formerly enslaved people who used wood from boxcars and scrap materials to build homes in the late 1800s. Southwest Memphis is already overburdened by many industrial facilities, and this victory succeeded in preventing Southwest Memphis from becoming home to a new pipeline and even more environmental degradation. 

    For a deeper dive on this story, see The Climate Reality Project blogs: