Environmentalists blow whistle on state proposal to allow more toxins in state waters

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida’s rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters face a dramatic increase in the level of toxic chemicals that cause cancer and other serious illnesses under a proposal by the pro-business administration of Gov. Rick Scott to water down state environmental protections.

That’s the warning from a coalition of activists and scientists about a proposal by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to allow corporations to dump higher levels of dangerous contaminants into public waterways than state rules now allow.

“The department is taking us backward,” Florida Clean Water Network founder Linda Young told FloridaBulldog,org. “[The new rules] will make our waters more polluted. It is really bad policy that is of no benefit to the taxpayers and the public.”

The proposal would recalculate the parts per billion limits for 82 toxic chemicals designated as human health hazards. State law allows industrial waste to include these chemicals as long as they are under the limits set by DEP.

State officials, however, flatly reject the environmentalists’ concerns that those higher limits pose a threat to all Floridians.

“Depictions that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is weakening water quality protection and endangering Floridians is false,” said agency spokeswoman Lori Elliott. “The proposed criteria were based solely on scientifically sound and verifiable information and variables, and are protective of human health even in the most extreme cases.”

The impasse illuminates a long-running battle that environmentalists and preservationists have waged against the administration of Gov. Scott, which recently came under fire over the state’s handling of Lake Okeechobee discharges that sent billions of gallons of toxic polluted rainwater into the Atlantic earlier this year.

Michelle Gale, a former psychologist who lives in Coconut Creek, is an activist for the national anti-fracking organization Food and Water Watch, said Scott has effectively neutered DEP’s enforcement powers. “Since Gov. Scott got into office, he has really gutted DEP,” Gale said. “He has put in people who do his bidding. We have to keep fighting and fighting them.”

Lauren Schenone, Scott’s deputy press secretary, declined comment.

‘DEP stalling’

The state’s environmental protection department last updated the list of regulated toxic chemicals in 1992. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] has been doing it more frequently, most recently a year ago,” Young said. “Florida DEP had been stalling.”

Out of 120 toxic chemicals the federal agency recommended regulations for, Florida only has restrictions on 43. Under the new plan, DEP would add 39 more toxic chemicals to the list. The DEP’s Elliott insisted Florida has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation.

“In fact, we are increasing protection by proposing to nearly double the number of regulated chemicals to better protect Floridians and visitors from exposure to contaminants,” Elliott said. “In addition to adding criteria for 39 chemicals that currently have no regulations, DEP is also updating 43 existing criteria to incorporate the latest national science for the protection of public health.”

However, draft language of DEP’s updated Human Health-Based Water Quality Criteria shows the department is raising the caps on a majority of the regulated toxic chemicals that can be released into surface waters. Young said DEP has ignored concerns raised by scientists and activists at three public workshops held in May. The department has until September to finalize the new criteria.

For instance, the current limit for the chemical benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, is 1.18 parts per billion. Under DEP’s updated criteria, the cap would be three parts per billion. The federal standard is 1.14 parts per billion.

Some chemicals, like arsenic, would remain at a current level of 10 parts per billion. But that’s still 1,000 times higher than what the federal government recommends as an allowable limit, Young said.

She also noted that DEP’s new rules don’t address several dozen unregulated toxic compounds, including dioxin, a byproduct of pulp and paper mills that has contaminated such places as the Fenholloway River in Taylor County. Short-term exposure to dioxin may result in skin lesions and a breakdown in liver function, while long-term exposure can impair the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions, environmentalists say.

“DEP’s approach allows us to take into consideration the characteristics of all Floridians,” Elliott said. “This is a much more sophisticated and comprehensive analytical method that allows us to generate criteria to protect all Floridians including small children and people who eat more seafood than average.”

Young disagreed. “It is not going to protect us,” she said. “They want to justify having the weakest standards as possible.”

Judge: Pipeline foes can’t raise Gov. Scott’s alleged conflict of interest

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org pipebury

A Tallahassee administrative judge has ruled that environmental opponents of the proposed Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline cannot raise allegations that Gov. Rick Scott has a financial conflict of interest in the project.

Twin rulings this month by Judge Bram D.E. Canter held that questions by the nonprofit WWALs Watershed Coalition regarding “non-environmental public interest factors” are outside the court’s jurisdiction.

“Petitioner may not present evidence or argument regarding whether there has been a violation of Florida ethics law,” Canter wrote. “Petitioner must confine its claims and evidence to the criteria applicable to the issuance of an environmental resource permit.”

The decision was a win for Sabal Trail Transmission LLC and its attorneys. Last month they called evidence of the governor’s financial interest in Sabal Trail’s majority owner, Spectra Energy, “irrelevant” and “unfairly prejudicial” while asking the court to prevent WWAL’s from bringing it up.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is backing the $3 billion pipeline proposed to run from the Georgia state line to a hub south of Orlando, also had called evidence of Scott’s investment in Spectra “not material to this proceeding.”

Sabal Trail is a joint venture of Spectra and Florida Power & Light parent, NextEra Energy.

WWALs president John Quarterman said his group considered filing a conflict of interest claim against Scott with the Florida Commission on Ethics, but decided against it.

“We’d be happy to do it if we had any resources to do it,” said Quarterman.

WWALs asked for the administrative hearing on Sept. 3 after the DEP announced its intention to award Sabal Trail both an environmental resources permit and rights to drill under riverbeds in order to build the 267-mile Florida leg of the underground pipeline.

Sabal Trail is an interstate project proposed to run a total of 474 miles through Alabama and Georgia into Florida. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the project and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC is expected to issue that statement by the end of the year.

KEYS TO THE PIPELINE

The ability of Sabal Trail to obtain a Florida environmental permit and rights to drill beneath state-owned submerged lands is also key to the project.

Gov. Scott’s alleged conflict involves his oversight of both the DEP, and his membership on the Board of Trustees of the Florida Internal Improvement Fund. The fund owns submerged lands beneath several rivers in north Florida where Spectra Energy wants to drill to install the 36-inch Sabal Trail pipeline.

The board of trustees delegated decision-making authority to DEP to issue an easement to allow construction.

Central to the conflict of interest allegations are Scott’s sizeable investments in not only Spectra Energy, but also other natural gas companies that stand to benefit from Sabal Trail’s construction.

If approved, Sabal Trail would connect to the existing Transco Pipeline in Alabama. Financial disclosure papers filed last year by Scott while qualifying to run for re-election show the governor owned shares of Transco’s owner, Williams Companies, which he valued at more than $100,000.

Scott also reported owning shares of Houston-based Energy Transfer valued at $300,000. Energy Transfer’s holdings include 100 percent of Citrus Corp., which owns 50 percent of Florida Gas Transmission. Sabal Trail has said it plans to build a 13-mile extension from its hub in Osceola County to tie into Florida Gas Transmission’s existing natural gas pipeline in Orange County.

Judge Canter has set a hearing on WAALs’s petition at 10 a.m. Oct. 19-22 at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Pipeline company with tie to Gov. Scott, and state backing, has history of accidents

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

Spectra Energy, the company that state environmental regulators say should be allowed to construct a 267-mile-long natural gas pipeline in North Florida, has a checkered history of accidents and violations of federal safety rules in the U.S. and Canada dating back decades.

FloridaBulldog.org reported last week that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is backing the award of a key environmental permit for the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline to a joint venture majority-owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy.

Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott. On last year’s financial disclosure form, Scott reported owning a $108,000 stake in Spectra and its affiliate, DCP Midstream Partners. His latest disclosure form, filed in June, no longer details Scott’s securities holdings because he put those assets into a blind trust.

The underground Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a nearly 500-mile interstate natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama, through Georgia south to Orange County, south of Orlando. Spectra owns 59.5 percent; Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy owns 33 percent; and Duke Energy, which spun off its natural gas business to form Spectra in 2007, recently paid $225 million for a 7.5 percent stake.

Federal and state election records show that FP&L, Duke Energy and their affiliates together have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan. They also gave a total of $5.8 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2013-14, which in turn contributed $18.3 million to Let’s Get to Work last year.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Spectra Energy operates approximately 22,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in North America. U.S. and Canadian agency files detail the company’s problematic safety record.

From 2006 to date, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 25 incidents that caused more than $12 million in property damage along Spectra’s main line – the 9,000-mile Texas Eastern Transmission that connects Texas and the Gulf Coast with big urban markets in the Northeast. The causes ranged from equipment failure and incorrect operations to pipe corrosion.

The agency found numerous federal rules violations during the same period and slapped Spectra with a total of $400,000 in fines – not counting another $59,000 proposed penalty for failing to construct a pipeline in Pennsylvania in accordance with written specifications.

Spectra’s press office did not respond to detailed requests for comment made over two days.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its July 10 notice of intent to issue the permit and easement for Sabal Trail without a public hearing. The WWALS Watershed Coalition, a Georgia based nonprofit and environmental advocate, filed an objection to the permit last week and the department is considering its response.

Was Spectra’s safety record considered in DEP’s decision?

“The department assesses a permit application based on Florida statutes and rules to ensure that all aspects of the proposed operation follow Florida law and are protective of the environment and human health and safety,” DEP spokeswoman Lori Elliott said in a Wednesday statement.

A DRAMATIC RUPTURE

Spectra’s most recent pipeline accident was the dramatic rupture of an auxiliary pipe along its Texas Eastern Pipeline in Little Rock, Ark. on May 31. The buried line, which crossed the Arkansas River near the Clinton Presidential Center, was not in use at the time, but contained four million cubic feet of natural gas that exploded with such force that churning water boiled up high into the air across the span of the river. Eyewitness Tony Cassady, who lives nearby, said the gushing waters had settled back somewhat by the time he managed to snap the photo above.

While no one was injured, the blow out resulted in more than $1 million in damages, according to federal records. The cause has not been determined, but an incident report filed by Spectra in June noted that high rains had caused flooding that had washed away soil that once covered the pipeline on the river’s bank.

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy's Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy’s Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Another vivid example of the power of out-of-control natural gas occurred June 28, 2012 at the Nig Creek pipeline in British Columbia, operated by Spectra’s wholly owned subsidiary Westcoast Energy. The 16-inch pipeline, which had been shut down that night, was filled with pressurized “sour gas” that exploded when the line ruptured, causing a fire and creating a large crater in a remote forest area in British Columbia. Sour gas contains significant amounts of hydrogen sulfide and is highly toxic.

No one was injured in the blast – the nearest town, population 58, was 25 miles away. The cause was later determined to be a crack in a pipe.

So far in 2015, Canada’s National Energy Board has fined Spectra Energy three times for a total of $122,300 – including $88,000 imposed in January after inspectors found violations with “the potential to significantly impact worker safety and infrastructure” at Spectra’s Dawson Creek Gas Plant, also in British Columbia.

Just last month, the board also ordered Spectra to fix “management system failures” at its Westcoast Energy gas processing plants and facilities in western Canada after inspectors uncovered 27 safety issues between April 1, 2014 and June 26, 2015.

“The board expects Westcoast to address safety concerns on a systemic basis,” says the July 14 safety order. “Based on recent violations described below, the board is not confident safety concerns are being addressed in this manner.”

Back in the U.S., Spectra owns or co-owns eight natural gas pipelines, including the 745-mile Gulfstream Natural Gas, which runs beneath the Gulf of Mexico from lower Mississippi and Alabama to Tampa Bay. All but two of those pipelines – Gulfstream and the 67-mile Big Sandy pipeline in eastern Kentucky – have reported at least one incident since 2006.

Spectra Energy's pipelines

Spectra Energy’s pipelines

In 2014, the U.S. pipeline administration investigated a frightening episode in Searsmont, Maine involving the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, a joint venture of Spectra, Emera and ExxonMobil. The 684-mile pipeline transports natural gas from offshore Nova Scotia to markets in the northeast U.S.

The event happened at a pipeline compressor station, which helps move gas through a pipeline by keeping it under sufficient pressure, shortly before midnight on Dec. 31, 2013. Neighbors told a Bangor Daily News reporter they heard a roaring noise that was so loud it caused nearby homes to shake and some residents to flee.

“TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE”

“It was absolutely the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” Susan Totman told the newspaper.

Federal pipeline regulators said the noise, which lasted more than a half-hour, was caused by the release of gas jetting from a valve in an emergency shutdown system that was unintentionally opened. About 70 million cubic yards of gas were released, says an agency report on the incident.

The pipeline operator was later found to have violated federal regulations by failing to timely inform them of the accident. Last month, on July 24, regulators imposed a $34,500 fine that company officials did not contest.

Other Spectra pipelines have had problems, too.

Agency records list three incidents in 2010 involving equipment failure and excavation damage along Spectra’s East Tennessee pipeline that caused $238,000 in property damage. In 2013, the company received a warning letter after inspectors found four probable safety violations.

Spectra’s Southeast Supply Header is a 286-mile pipeline that funnels natural gas through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulfstream pipeline and on to Florida. Records show that a construction-related equipment failure near Hazlehurst, Miss. in January 2010 caused $562,000 in property damage and led to $200,000 in safety violation fines.

But Spectra’s longest and most troubled pipeline is the Texas Eastern Transmission.

In 1989, Spectra and its Texas Eastern limited partnership paid a $15 million fine and entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination at numerous cites along the pipeline in 14 states.

Texas Eastern had used the banned substance and suspected carcinogen in its compressors as a fire retardant, and over time it had leaked into the pipeline system. The $500 million PCB cleanup cost included the assessment of 462 sites for contamination, installing 707 groundwater monitoring wells and removing and disposing of 600,000 tons of contaminated soil, the EPA said in a 2002 announcement that the cleanup had been completed.

Texas Eastern also paid Pennsylvania $218.6 million in penalties and costs to clean up 19 sites in that state where PCBs were dumped.

In 1994, a buried Texas Eastern pipeline in Edison, N.J. ruptured and ignited “sending flames several hundred feet in the air,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. Heat from the burning gas set fire to an apartment complex more than 100 yards away, destroying several buildings.

Dozens of people were injured and more than 100 families were left homeless, but there were no fatalities. Damage was estimated at $25 million. The probable cause of the rupture: mechanical damage to the pipe that created a crack that metal fatigue caused to grow to critical size.

Gov. Scott’s pipeline investment gets a boost from Florida environmental regulators

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

State regulators are quietly backing the award of a crucial environmental permit to a company that wants to build a controversial $3-billion natural gas pipeline in North Florida. The company’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), overseen by the governor, published a notice of its intent to issue an Environmental Resources Permit to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, a joint venture of Houston-based Spectra Energy and Florida Power & Light parent, NextEra Energy.

The July 10 notice also says the DEP intends to grant an easement that would allow Sabal Trail to use “submerged state lands” to help construct the pipeline. Some of those lands are beneath the Suwannee, Santa Fe and Withlacoochee rivers, where the 36-inch pipeline would be buried.

The Board of Trustees of Florida’s Internal Improvement Trust Fund owns the submerged lands, according to DEP’s notice. The board is comprised of the governor and Cabinet – Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state chief financial officer Jeff Atwater.

FPL selected Spectra Energy to build and operate Sabal Trail in July 2013.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in July 2014 that Gov. Scott owned a $53,000 stake in Spectra Energy, and a $55,000 stake in DCP Midstream Partners, a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy. As detailed in a state financial disclosure form, the governor’s portfolio included several million dollars invested in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including several, like Spectra, with substantial Florida operations.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST PROHIBITIONS

The governor and other public officials in Florida are generally prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies. The law also prohibits them from having an interest in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between their private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of their public duties.

Sabal Trail pipeline project map

Sabal Trail pipeline project map

As described in paperwork released by the department, issuance of the environmental permit would constitute certification that the pipeline project is in compliance with state water quality standards and consistent with Florida’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

DEP says it will issue the permit and easement unless an affected party files a petition seeking an administrative hearing by Friday, August 7. A spokesman for one environmental group, the Georgia-based WWALS Watershed Coalition, said it intends to file a petition by the deadline.

The Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a 474-mile natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in Central Florida, south of Orlando. The Florida leg, 257 miles long, will traverse a dozen counties in north Florida.

Florida Power & Light intends to use the pipeline as a dedicated supply of fracked natural gas to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants in locations that include Port Everglades.

According to the DEP, the project will affect 408 acres of wetlands and other surface waters. The notice says some wetland vegetation should re-establish fairly quickly, but “forested areas may take 2-50+ years to re-establish to pre-construction conditions.”

Sabal Trail applied for the permit, water quality certification and authorization to use the sovereign submerged lands on July 31, 2014.

PIPELINE ‘CLEARLY IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST’

“The department has determined…the applicant has provided reasonable assurance that the construction, including the direct, secondary and cumulative impacts, will comply with” state laws and rules, says the notice signed by Jeff Prather, director of the DEP’s central district. “The applicant has also demonstrated that the construction…is clearly in the public interest.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the project and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC has accepted public comments in its ongoing review of the project. A decision could come as early as November.

Gov. Scott was heavily involved in the state’s early backing of the Sabal Trail pipeline project. In May and June 2013, he signed into law a pair of bills intended to speed up permitting. Later that year, his appointees on the Florida Public Service Commission approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline.

At the time, however, Scott’s ownership interest in Spectra Energy was not publicly known. Like tens of millions of dollars of the governor’s other assets, his Spectra shares were placed in a Florida blind trust.

Blind trusts are supposed to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” public officials and the public to their specific assets. And a spokesman for Scott said the governor “had no knowledge of his Spectra investment because his decision to invest was made by a trustee of the blind trust.”

But Scott’s trustee wasn’t a disinterested manager. It was Hollow Brook Wealth Management and chief executive Alan Bazaar, a trusted former employee of the governor’s private investment firm, Richard L. Scott Investments.

Scott lifted the veil on his assets briefly in June 2014 after he closed his original blind trust and immediately opened a new one and placed all of his assets back into it. The maneuver served to insulate the governor from criticism about financial transparency in advance of last year’s election, but it also revealed the governor’s large personal bet on natural gas firms like Spectra and Energy Transfer Equity LP, entities with significant pipeline interests in Florida.

Energy Transfer’s subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission, the state’s largest natural gas pipeline and a major state vendor. Scott also has a financial interest in Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline Gulfstream, through his investments in Spectra and the large pipeline operator Williams Cos.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Energy Transfer Equity LP, run by Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, is pursuing a multi-billion dollar deal to acquire Williams.

In his most recent financial disclosure, Scott valued his units of Energy Transfer as worth $311,000 on Dec. 31 2013. He also reported a $400,000 stake in a pair of entities owned by Energy Transfer, Regency Energy Partners LP and PVR Partners LP.

Energy Transfer boss Warren has been a big political supporter or Gov. Scott. In Nov. 2013, two days after former Gov. Charlie Crist filed to run against Scott, Warren contributed $50,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a political committee backing Scott. In March 2012, an Energy Transfer subsidiary gave $25,000 to Let’s Get to Work.

On Sunday, The New York Times ranked Warren third among those who have given the most money in the 2016 presidential race. Warren’s $6 million in contributions all supported former Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry.

EPA abandons major radiation cleanup in Florida, despite cancer concerns

By Douglas P. Guarino, Center for Public Integrity phosphatemining

The Environmental Protection Agency is walking away after a decades-long battle with Florida politicians and industry officials over cleaning up phosphate-mining waste in an area that could expose more than 100,000 residents to cancer-causing radiation levels.

Under a decision quietly finalized two weeks ago, the federal agency will leave it to state officials to decide the fate of the sites in and around Lakeland, an approximately 10-square-mile residential area midway between Orlando and Tampa. (more…)

In new battleground over toxic reform, special interests target Florida, other states

By Ronnie Greene, Center for Public Integrity american_chemistry_council

HARTFORD, Conn. — In the bare-knuckle war over toxic chemicals, the fight between industry and activists has shifted noticeably from Washington, D.C., to state venues such as the golden-domed Capitol that rises over Hartford like a lordly manse. (more…)

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