In the Path of the Pipeline

Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline is a 515-mile pipeline that will carry over 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day throughout Alabama, Georgia and Florida. While 89 percent of the 1,550 landowners in the pipeline’s path accepted financial compensation for their land, others are battling the $3.2 billion project out of fear for the environmental impacts and loss of their land.

Fighting for a Way of Life

The once-familiar sound of blue jays singing is replaced by the rumbling of excavators and front loaders, serving as a constant reminder of the changing landscape of a Bronson resident’s land.

An upside-down American flag is hung at half-staff in front of his trailer home- a sign of distress, Robin Koon says. On the opposite side, pine trees as tall as 50 feet came crashing down as he paced back and forth his property.

The pond he and his father used to fish at has since dried-up, now invaded by a 515-mile natural gas pipeline that snakes through Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Koon, 56, moved to Bronson, a rural town of less than 1,500 people, in search of a small-town life nearly 30 years ago. Instead, he has been met by a battle against Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline as one of about 170 homeowners sued under eminent domain proceedings.

In a matter of months, the pipeline has been barreling through his land, excavating away his makeshift scatter-garden were his five family members’ ashes were spread and tainting his mother’s fight against dementia.

The project is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc. and Duke Energy, which will bring transportation services for power generation needs to Florida Power and Light as well as Duke Energy of Florida. They have the in-service date set for summer 2017.

Spectra Energy spokeswoman Andrea Grover said 11 percent of the lawsuits filed through eminent domain were a “last resort,” noting that the rest of landowners accepted financial compensation in exchange for allowing the pipeline to be buried through their land.

The route was based on an environmental study and previous public meetings, Grover said. Sabal Trail legally obtained all the rights to the land Koon has called home for 30 years.

To other residents along the path of the pipeline, the $3.2 billion project causes more problems than just land loss.

Worried about the environmental impacts of the pipeline, several protest camps have set up near drill sites located by rivers and springs.

The pipeline will be crossing 699 bodies of water and carrying fracked gas from The Transco pipeline in Alabama.

Opponents, who refer to themselves as “water protectors,” fear a contamination of the springs or Floridan aquifer, claiming that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission simply “rubber stamps” pipeline projects despite the fragile state of the ecosystem.

Protests have led to a total of 26 Sabal Trail related arrests in Florida and one death after a man shot at the pipeline and some of its equipment with a high-powered rifle in Marion County.

The slain Sabal Trail shooter, which was identified as a Chokoloskee man, was killed after he fled the scene and brandished his weapon at police, according to officials.

Regardless of the arrests, opponents still gather to raise awareness for what they believe is an environmentally harmful project.

“The issues of concern included potential impacts on forested lands, water resources including groundwater and springs, karst terrain, environmental justice, and compressor station noise,” said Tamara Young-Allen, FERC’s Division of Media Relations. “All of these issues were addressed during the staff’s environmental review and summarized in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).”

With two-thirds of Florida depending on natural gas, projections show there will be a need for energy by 2024. According to Grover, the 3-foot-wide pipeline is the safest and most reliable way to provide energy for in-state residents.

Ocala resident Robert Ross lives approximately 500 feet from the pipeline and also believes that it is “much needed in Florida.” The 62-year-old owner of Wood Crafting Woodworks has lived in the area for more than 30 years.

He said that if the invasive projects like highways can be constructed, then so can an underground pipeline systems. He isn’t concerned with any potential impacts the project might have on the Floridan aquifer or his water well.

Anthony Randazzo, a retired geology professor, argues that building a pipeline in a recharge area for a body of water has a chance of contaminating the water, although it is “highly unlikely” because “engineers plan the safest routes possible when routing pipelines.”

However, opponents say that construction has already resulted in sinkholes and impacted the water, pointing to a drilling mud leak from a frac-out in the Withlacoochee river in Georgia.

John Quarterman, the president of the WWALS Watershed Coalition environmental group in Georgia, was told such accidents were not possible. He believes the best way to avoid an “environmental disaster” would be to invest in renewable sources of power like solar and wind energy.

“The Sabal Trail fracked gas is completely unnecessary because even Florida Power and Light now admits that Florida needs no new electricity until 2024 at the earliest,” says Quarterman. “It’s a completely destructive boondoggle which has no real benefit to the people of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.”