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Memphis Leaders Tighten Environmental Regulations Following Cancellation of Byhalia Pipeline

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Cameron Rutt
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Environmental and social activists have been asking for more local oversight of the Memphis Sand aquifer, which supplies the city's drinking water.

The Memphis City Council passed new regulations Tuesday designed to protect the city’s drinking water from industrial contamination risks, although city leaders delayed voting on two other ordinances backed by environmental activists.

The council now must approve permits for certain developments in areas surrounding Memphis Light, Gas and Water wellheads that are used to pump the city’s drinking water. Businesses and industries affected by the new rules include facilities that treat hazardous waste, gas stations, bus and truck terminals and, most notably, crude oil pipelines.

The new restrictions follow a long local campaign against the Byhalia Pipeline project, which developers canceled in July, they said, because of a slumping demand for oil. Opponents—who included former Vice President Al Gore—protested its construction because of both the potential environmental fallout of an oil spill, and the pipeline’s impact on primarily African American neighborhoods in South Memphis along its proposed path.

Sarah Houston with the advocacy group Protect Our Aquifer praised the passage of wellhead protections, but says the area’s drinking water, which is sourced from the Memphis Sand Aquifer, remains vulnerable to pollutants.

“Overarchingly, when it comes to Protect our Aquifer’s goals, we want to see local water management strengthened across the whole county,” she says, noting that the new restrictions would only cover a portion of the land in Memphis.

She urged the City Council to join the Shelby County Commission in barring the construction of oil pipelines within 1,500 feet of schools, churches, parks and residential areas.

Besides keeping the population safe, Houston says this kind of ordinance provides an additional safeguard for green spaces like parks that naturally help filter clean rainwater back to the aquifer.

“When we continue to utilize these green spaces, potentially for hazardous infrastructure, we are limiting the amount of spaces that clean water can be replenished [from],” she says.

The City Council delayed voting on the 1,500 foot rule on Tuesday, along with a second measure that would give the council broad authority to regulate underground infrastructure projects like oil pipelines.

The body’s attorney, Allan Wade, raised concerns about the two proposals, saying they may be hard to defend legally, giving some council members pause.

In contrast, he called the wellhead provision “good public policy,” noting that the permitting process requires both MLGW and the Land Use Control Board to first consider and offer input on proposed developments before they reach the council.

“It is something that preserves your legislative discretion and gives you the ultimate decision whether to allow pipelines or any of the other prohibited use or targeted uses,” he said.