The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Tennessee Lookout: GOP legislators move to usurp even more local control with pro-pipeline bill

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GOP-led Legislature aims to ban local decisions on fossil-fuel infrastructure

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

Per updated TL reporting, this bill was deferred to March 15 for committee consideration.

Memphis activist Justin Pearson spent years trying to pass legislation to protect his city’s natural drinking water, but a bill being fast tracked through the state Legislature is threatening his efforts.  

Last week, environmental activists learned that Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, are seeking to pass a bill aimed at removing local government control over land use zoning for fossil fuel infrastructure. 

Both the Tennessee State House and Senate Commerce Committees will vote on HB2246 and SB2077 on Tuesday, and if the bill passes, it could be on the Legislature floor by Thursday. 

By the time Pearson learned of the legislation, a vote had already been scheduled with little time to alert those affected. 

“We really have to talk about the timing of this. This law came into being on Tuesday as an amendment, giving no time for local governments to have a say in the ramifications or citizens a significant amount of time to scrutinize and understand its impacts,” said Pearson, who co-founded Memphis Against the Pipeline, which has become the Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP).

Vaughan did not return a Lookout reporter’s calls for comment. 

In the meantime, Pearson and other environmental organizations, including Protect Our Aquifer, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center, have worked to protect Memphis residents from fossil fuel companies attempting to build pipelines through their neighborhoods.

In 2020, the joint-companies Plains All American Pipeline and Valero announced their intentions to build the Byhalia Pipeline through South Memphis, including historic Black neighborhoods. 

Residents, community leaders and environmental activists then rallied against the Byhalia pipeline, calling it a form of environmental racism. 

Pearson and others noted that residents  in South Memphis were already exposed to potentially hazardous materials from other industrial facilities in the area, and oil spills from the pipeline could seep under the city into wellheads directly above the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provides Shelby County with natural drinking water. 

Environmental activists and community leaders spent nearly a year in legal battles with the pipeline company, who attempted to use eminent domain to take land from residents. Plains All American and Valero pulled their plans for the Byhalia Pipeline, but Pearson and others have since attempted to pass legislation within the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission aimed at protecting local interests. 

In 2021, the Shelby County Commission passed an ordinance to prevent pipelines from being built within 1,500 feet of most residential areas, such as churches and schools. That same month, the Memphis City Council  delayed a vote on a joint ordinance with the county commission but passed an ordinance to create wellhead protections from development near areas where the city pumps its drinking water, (as reported by Hellbender Press in August ’21).

Pearson is still seeking to push for environmental justice in South Memphis, to promote more protections for the aquifer and to allow local residents a say in the risks associated with infrastructures carrying potentially dangerous material.  

But Tuesday’s vote could erase all his work over the past two years, since the legislation seeks to void and preempt any local governments from restricting energy infrastructure projects. 

“This type of legislation is overreaching into local affairs. It’s legislation that propagates the power of corporate people that are out of state, in foreign companies, over the desires or will of Tennessee citizens,” said Pearson, adding that ordinances to protect their drinking water would be illegal.

Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-96, who alerted environmental groups, said the legislation was created in response to protests and efforts by local government officials against the Byhalia Pipeline.

“I believe that this bill has come from interests that wanted the pipeline as a partial reason to avoid having to work with local interests,” said Thompson. 

“We will have testimony about the need to keep these decisions in the hands of local governments tomorrow and it will hopefully persuade the majority to oppose this bill,” he added.

The Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, Protect Our Aquifer, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and others have urged the House and Senate committees to stop the legislation so it can be examined more carefully. 

“We’re getting calls from concerned county commissioners and county mayors,” said Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club.

The public should also be concerned, said Banbury, since the legislation could eliminate any public say in fossil fuel projects built near residential areas and allow private property to be taken by pipeline companies. 

“The much more compelling message is this is taking away your local power,” Banbury said.

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