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Former VP Al Gore Joins Fight Against Byhalia Pipeline

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Cameron Rutt for WKNO
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Opponents of a crude oil pipeline that would be routed under communities in southwest Memphis now have one of the country’s most prominent environmental activists in their corner. Former Vice President Al Gore came to the area on Sunday to promote their fight against the Byhalia Connection Project.

He took the stage in front of about 500 people, telling them that the nearly 50-mile pipeline, which would carry oil from southwest Memphis to northern Mississippi, is a “reckless, racist, ripoff.” 

“What’s in it for Memphis other than the risk?” he asked in a conversation with reporters after speaking.

The Byhalia project, conceived by the companies Plains All American and Valero Energy, is designed to connect two existing pipelines. Its proposed path would partially run under the predominantly African American neighborhoods of Boxtown and Westwood, which activists say is indicative of environmental racism—when poor, communities of color disproportionately bear the cost of polluting industries.  

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Credit Cameron Rutt

Gore says the pipeline also places the city’s drinking water in danger because the pipeline would be constructed above the Memphis Sand Aquifer and could eventually leak. 

“It’s a ripoff because the risk is all put on Memphians and the rewards all go to the shareholders of...these oil conglomerates,” he said. “The oil goes overseas, they want to export it.” 

In a recent letter to the community, Plains All American says the pipeline will rest far enough above the aquifer to keep it safe. The company added that most homes or businesses in the area are already within five miles of existing oil or natural gas pipelines. They also tout the local economic benefit of construction and future property taxes the companies will pay.

But some landowners in Boxtown who are fighting the companies in court over easements of their property for the construction say it’s not worth it. 

“The judge said that his job was to determine if Byhalia pipeline was going to get our land, and I was like, what? How?  And Why?” said Marie Odum at the rally. Her father owns property in Boxtown that could be affected by the pipeline. “We don’t owe them anything. We don’t owe Byhalia nothing.”

Pipeline opponents are looking to local leaders for help to halt construction. Both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission are considering measures that could disrupt the project.

  “You just remember that political will is itself a renewable resource,” Gore said.