A pipeline that is under construction in several southern U.S. states has local residents fired up, as they fear potential contamination of their groundwater. The EPA and local authorities have given the pipeline a thumbs-up, despite the likelihood of significant damage to the environment.
TAMPA — As the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline becomes a distant memory for many, similar fights are still taking place throughout much of the United States, albeit with far less press coverage by mainstream and alternative media alike.
The Sabal Trail pipeline, set to span much of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, is the subject of one such struggle. Part of a joint venture owned by a consortium of energy companies, including Houston-based Spectra Energy, North Carolina’s Duke Energy and NextEraEnergy – the parent company of Floridian electricity monopoly Florida Power & Light – the $3.2 billion taxpayer-funded pipeline would carry fracked natural gas over a distance of 516 miles in order to bring “affordable, clean natural gas supplies to Florida.”
But behind the familiar pro-pipeline platitudes promising “affordable” energy and “economic stimulus” is another unpopular pipeline project using eminent domain to drown out local opposition in favor of major energy corporations. Properties owned by hundreds of locals have been condemned via the use of Florida’s eminent domain law and those who have tried to fight back have repeatedly lost to the pipeline in the state court system.
The pipeline has inspired robust local protests and acts of defiance. Pipeline opposition activists have held protests, blocked roads, chained themselves to construction equipment and even lodged themselves within the pipeline itself. One man was shot and killed by Florida police after he fired a rifle at the pipeline.
While the Sabal Trail partnership expected to complete the pipeline months ago, frequent acts of resistance have caused construction delays since last October. However, the struggle to kill the pipeline has fallen on deaf ears at the national level, largely failing to capture the same attention that the Dakota Access pipeline fight so readily attracted.
— RoseAnn DeMoro (@RoseAnnDeMoro) April 22, 2017
— No Sabal Trail (@no_sabaltrail) April 11, 2017
The circumstances between the two fights are quite similar, with Florida’s indigenous tribal leaders being actively involved in the resistance, as the Sabal pipeline crosses land that is culturally significant to Florida’s tribes, particularly the Seminoles. Earlier this year, in January, the Seminole Tribe of North Florida created four protest camps along the pipeline’s route. However, a virtual media blackout of the situation remains, even among outlets that were sympathetic to Dakota Access water protectors.
A disaster waiting to happen
Those opposing the pipeline have plenty of reason to be concerned. The pipeline’s route will see it tunnel under 699 bodies of water – including lakes, rivers and streams – as well as nearly 2,000 wetland systems that are key sources of water for as many as 10 million Florida and Georgia residents.
In addition, it is set to pass through farmland, forests and conservation areas, as well as near schools and through towns of all sizes. Not surprisingly, more than 80 percent of those living along the pipeline’s route live in impoverished or disadvantaged areas, including several communities of color and indigenous tribal land.
The possibility of pipeline leaks has many people worried about the project. Natural gas leaks are highly toxic to people and wildlife, and can cause entire rivers to become flammable. Those who are unfortunate enough to live near a pipeline compressor station are set to experience nosebleeds, trouble breathing, dizziness and nausea, even when the pipeline is functioning optimally.
However, leaks in the Sabal Trail pipeline are a near certainty, as it is set to pass through the karst landscapes that are prone to sinkholes due to the presence of underground caverns. Therefore, this section of the pipeline will be especially prone to ruptures and leaks, which would contaminate nearby aquifers and groundwater. Sinkholes are common in the area, as evidenced by the sudden opening of a sinkhole near a fertilizer factory last year that caused radioactive water from the site to contaminate the Floridan aquifer.
Reminder of lunacy building Sabal Trail Pipeline to pump billion gallons of fracked gas a day through Florida's Sinkhole country & aquifer! https://t.co/kKPxhUFhgQ
— Tim Canova (@Tim_Canova) May 11, 2017
Documented risks ignored by government at behest of energy companies
All of these risks were acknowledged by EPA scientists in 2015. In addition, the EPA estimated that nearly 1,200 acres of land would be totally destroyed or severely impacted during the pipeline’s construction. However, after meeting with Sabal Trail representatives just two months later, the EPA drastically changed its assessment, reduced its projections and dropped some of its more significant environmental concerns, stating that the pipeline company “fully considered avoidance and minimization of impacts during the development of the preferred route.”
Evidence also suggests that the governing bodies of Florida are aware that drinking water contamination caused by the pipeline is likely, but are still acting in the interest of the energy companies. In 2016, Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to pass new water quality standards that raised the allowable levels for more than 25 carcinogens that are commonly found in fracking wells. One of the chemicals is benzene, a known carcinogen whose allowable level in drinking water is now triple the previous limit.
To add insult to injury, one of the energy companies behind the Sabal Trail project has admitted that the pipeline isn’t even necessary. According to Florida Power & Light’s 10-year plan, submitted in 2016 to the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), the company admitted that they will have no need for new electricity capacity until 2024, even though they have used the creation of extra capacity to justify the pipeline’s construction.
As Truthout reported, the construction of the pipeline has likely been spurred by the eagerness of energy companies to maintain their guaranteed rate of return, which normally hovers between 10 to 11 percent. The energy companies involved will reap all of the pipeline’s profits, but won’t pay for a cent of the pipeline itself, as all $3.2 billion needed to construct it will come from Florida taxpayers. The PSC, which approved the taxpayer funding, has five members – all of whom were appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott, who has a financial stake in Sabal Trail partner Spectra Energy.
The pipeline has already damaged Floridian water supplies even before its completion. Last November, drilling mud from the Sabal Trail pipeline leaked into the Withlacoochee River in southern Georgia. The Withlacoochee is a tributary of the Suwannee River and its contamination could impact the Floridan aquifer.
— sam snow (@samsnow53) June 9, 2017
Then, on June 7, construction workers for the Florida Southeast Connection (FSC) Pipeline — a connecting pipeline that will eventually merge with Sabal Trail — were caught spilling drilling fluid and possibly diesel fuel into a nearby wetland. If the construction of the pipeline alone has already caused such extensive damage, it’s not hard to imagine what will follow once the pipeline becomes operational.