Push to block Sabal Trail gas pipeline looks to enlist U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By Jake Galvin and Dan Christensen, Florida Bulldog.org 

Sabal Trail pipeline opponents handed out signs and leaflets in Live Oak on April 21. Photo: John S. Quarterman

Sabal Trail pipeline opponents handed out signs and leaflets in Live Oak on April 21. Photo: John S. Quarterman

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.

The Suwannee River in Live Oak. Photo: Jake Galvin

The Suwannee River in Live Oak. Photo: Jake Galvin

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 Dennis 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.”

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 to judge: Evidence of Gov. Scott’s investment in us ‘irrelevant’

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Lawyers for a company that wants to build a natural gas pipeline in north Florida have told a judge that environmental opponents should be blocked from “presenting evidence or argument” about Gov. Rick Scott’s financial interest in the company.

“Such evidence is irrelevant and the admission of which would be unfairly prejudicial,” attorneys for Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC told Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter in last week’s filing.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is backing the $3 billion Sabal Trail pipeline, filed a similar argument earlier this month when it called the “allegation regarding a conflict of interest…not material to this proceeding.”

Sabal Trail is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners and Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy. Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Scott.

The nonprofit WWALS Watershed Coalition filed for an administrative hearing on September 3 after state regulators said they intended to award Sabal Trail both a permit and rights to drill under riverbeds in order to build the 267-mile stretch of 36-inch underground pipeline in Florida. WWALS has asked the judge to deny the permit.

Among the documents WWALS has asked the DEP to produce are all communications from Scott or his executive office about the Sabal Trail project since the governor took office.

WWALS Watershed Coalition logo

WWALS Watershed Coalition logo

The case is proceeding quickly. On September 21, Sabal Trail’s attorneys at the Tallahassee law firm Hopping Green & Sams invoked a law that Scott signed in May 2013 that speeds up the permitting process for the construction of interstate natural gas pipelines.

Under the law, challenges to new pipelines must be heard within 30 days “regardless of whether the parties agree to the summary proceedings.” Before Scott signed the law, natural gas pipelines were specifically excluded from consideration for expedited review.

The bill (HB 999) that ultimately amended the law to include expedited review for natural gas pipelines was introduced by then State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Pensacola.and overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature. Last October, Republican Scott appointed the term-limited Patronis to Florida’s Public Service Commission.

HEARING NEXT MONTH

Judge Canter has set a hearing on Sabal Trail, which is to run a total of 474 miles from Alabama and Georgia to a hub south of Orlando, for Oct. 19-22 in either Jasper or Live Oak. Click here to view documents filed in the case, 15-004975.

The issuance of a Florida environmental resources permit would be a key step toward construction of the pipeline. But it is not the only remaining hurdle.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the Sabal Trail proposal and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC’s decision is expected by the end of the year.

FERC’s first public hearing in Florida is 5:30 p.m. Thursday, October 1, at Columbia High School Auditorium, 469 SE Fighting Tiger Drive in Lake City.

WWALS’s petition contends the pipeline poses threats to native wildlife, including threatened species, and argues that proposed drilling into the area’s karst limestone to lay pipe could cause new sinkholes to form.

The group, an affiliate of the Waterkeeper Alliance, also raises a potentially explosive political issue: Whether Gov. Scott, as a trustee of the state board that owns the land beneath the rivers, has a conflict of interest due to his investments in Spectra Energy and Williams Company, owner of the Transco pipeline from which Sabal Trail plans to obtain its gas.

“The governor and other public officials are prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies,” the group’s petition says.

The governor’s blind trust is supposed to shield him, and the public, from conflicts of interest by putting his investments under the control of an independent trustee, and keeping them secret. Public officers who put their assets in a qualified blind trust receive immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest.

As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, Scott’s trustee is Hollow Brook Wealth Management, run by his longtime business crony Alan Baazar. The blind trust also has proved ineffective in preventing public disclosure of Scott’s assets.

Moreover, Florida’s qualified blind trust law, which Scott signed into law in May 2013, does not contemplate the unique situation that has transpired as Scott has used the law.

SCOTT’S BIG INVESTMENT IN NATURAL GAS

Scott created his original blind trust in 2011. Last year, while qualifying to run for re-election, he dissolved that trust, disclosed a lengthy list of his assets, opened a new blind trust and immediately stashed his assets into it.

The asset list revealed that during Scott’s first term the governor acquired substantial investments in the natural gas industry. His holdings, first reported by FloridaBulldog.org in July 2014, included stock in Spectra Energy, majority owner of Sabal Trail Transmission; Williams and more than two-dozen other entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including some with substantial Florida operations.

Scott’s investments in Spectra and Williams also gave him a financial interest in the Gulfstream pipeline that runs from Alabama to Tampa Bay under the Gulf of Mexico. Those companies and their limited partnerships jointly own and operate Palmetto-based Gulfstream Natural Gas System, LLC.

Scott, too, reported owning a bigger stake in giant Energy Transfer, the publicly traded master limited partnership whose subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission, Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline that runs from Texas through the Florida peninsula to Miami-Dade.

Scott also invested in Boardwalk Pipeline Partners (BWP), a master limited partnership that wholly-owns Gulf South Pipeline Co. Gulf South operates pipelines in Florida’s Panhandle.

Scott has declined to be interviewed about the matter, but his staff has said the governor has no conflicts of interest because he has no knowledge of the current contents of the blind trust that are under the control of trustee Hollow Brook Wealth Management and Alan Baazar.

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.

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