By Jake Galvin and Dan Christensen, Florida Bulldog.org
In an escalating effort to block the controversial Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, opponents are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine allegations that information about potential environmental hazards was overlooked during the regulatory process.
“There is significant evidence … of sinkholes, springs and the underground transmission of water for many miles that were not included in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Final Environmental Impact Statement,” said U.S. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., in a May 27 letter to the Corps.
FERC is the lead agency to review the $3 billion Sabal Trail project. In February, it approved construction through north Florida’s underlying Karst terrain – areas characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams, springs and similar features – after determining it “would not result in a significant impact on the environment” or “significantly affect public safety.”
“We have found no evidence that Karst hazards such as sinkhole development pose a safety or integrity risk to interstate transmission of pipeline facilities,” says FERC’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Bishop’s letter, citing substantial local opposition to Sabal Trail, urged The Corps to “perform a site inspection to determine the actual proximity of active sinkholes and other features of the aquifer and cave systems to the proposed pipeline route, as well as underground transmissivity for greater distances.”
Bishop expressed additional concern about possible wrongdoing by FERC itself – including a violation of the Clean Water Act by approving the project prior to the issuance of state water quality certifications.
The Army Corps has not responded yet, Bishop’s office said last week.
Sabal Trail filed a 130-page reply to Bishop with the FERC on June 6. The reply contends that Sabal Trail’s examination of environmental risks was thorough, and that “no new information” has been presented that would require an additional site inspection.
“Based on both applicable regulations and the fact that the issues raised in the letter have already been comprehensively addressed, Sabal Trail believes that a supplemental EIS is not required,” says the reply.
Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy, NextEra Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light, and Duke Energy. It wants to build and operate a nearly 500 mile natural gas pipeline to run from from Alabama through southwest Georgia then south to near Orlando. Sabal Trail would create thousands of jobs as well as a new supply route to supply steady flow of fuel for a new generation of natural gas-fired power plants.
Gov. Scott owned stock in Sabal Trail builder
FloridaBulldog.org previously has reported that Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been both a key Sabal Trail backer and a stockholder in the project’s majority owner, Spectra Energy.
In 2013, Scott signed into law a pair of bills designed to speed up permitting for the project. Later that same year, the Scott-appointed Florida Public Service Commission unanimously approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline.
In 2015, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which reports to Scott, decided that Sabal Trail had provided “reasonable assurance” that construction would comply with state law, that state water quality standards would not be violated and that the project was “clearly in the public interest.”
In Georgia, however, Sabal Trail has met resistance.
In March, the Georgia House quashed a measure to grant Sabal Trail necessary easements to drill underneath state rivers, effectively stopping any construction of the pipeline until after the Legislature reconvenes in January. At the local level, several counties and cities where the pipeline is to run have passed resolutions against Sabal Trail.
Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC aims to provide an estimated 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to Florida markets that it says will lower energy costs to consumers. Yet pipeline opponents say they fear potential damage should construction damage fragile geologic structures that facilitate the movement of groundwater or a ruptured pipeline due to new sinkhole formation.
The WWALs Watershed Coalition, whose name is an acronym for the watersheds of the Withlachoochee, Willacooche, Alapaha, Little and Upper Suwannee rivers, has spearheaded environmental opposition to Sabal Trail.
Geologist and WWALS member Dave Price said that during the permitting process he submitted a report on FERC that flatly contradicted Sabal Trail’s assertion that there are no sinkholes within 750 ft. of their proposed pipeline.
According to Price, however, there are literally thousands of sinkholes all along Sabal Trail’s proposed route through north Florida.
“Many, many sinkholes occur in retention basins throughout the karst regions of Florida. These occur in shallow excavations as well as deep excavations,” Price said in an interview. “Our worry is that excavation for pipe lying across the Falmouth cave system and the boring depth under US (Route) 90 will result in collapse into the cave system. ”
WWALs President John S. Quarterman said sinkholes could be devastating to a pipeline during construction or long after. “The sinkholes may form when they’re constructing it or maybe after a month, or two, or maybe a year. It’s just a matter of time.”
Rep. Yoho says Sabal Trail is safe
Sabal Trail is proposed to run through five counties that Congressman Bishop represents. It would also run through an adjacent district to the south represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville.
While a trio of north Florida counties – Hamilton, Suwannee, and Marion – sent letters to the Army Corps requesting a site visit and a supplemental environmental impact statement, Yoho believes Sabal Trail is safe and should move forward.
“Once completed, this project will help fulfill the future requirements of Florida’s growing energy needs for years to come while protecting our sensitive environment,” he said in a prepared statement written after he took part last month in a WWALs hosted hike.
Yoho, however, did not respond to requests for additional comment.
Another hiker, farm owner David Shields, lives about a quarter of a mile from a proposed pipeline compressor station. Such stations pressurize natural gas at intervals along the route to keep it flowing through the pipeline. Shields said he was concerned about what he’s read about compressor station safety and sinkholes in Sabal Trail’s report to the FERC.
“I wish someone would care more about my bottom line as a homeowner and a business owner, rather than this company that’s not from Florida,” he said.
Recent safety problems at Spectra Energy properties elsewhere have given Shields and others cause for concern.
On April 29, a Spectra Energy pipeline exploded in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, incinerating a house and sending a man to the hospital with third-degree burns. The explosion forced a rerouting of natural gas deliveries in the eastern United States and raised natural gas prices.
One year earlier, Spectra’s Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline exploded spectacularly under the Arkansas River in Little Rock.
“Its all been eye opening.,” said Shields. “You see movies and documentaries but now, for me, its real. Just the other day my children were playing in the field… within minutes I could lose everything.”