Sabal Trail Pipeline Will Be an Environmental and Economic Disaster, Critics Warn

Sabal Trail Pipeline Will Be an Environmental and Economic Disaster, Critics Warn
Illustration by Marcelo Baez

Into the quiet, a voice rang out amid the trees.

"Everyone remain in prayer!" a man in a brown jacket instructed. "Keep your prayers focused! Keep your intentions pure!"

Beneath the blue Suwannee County sky, someone tapped out a beat on a tribal drum. Two young women sat cross-legged behind the wheels of a construction truck, their arms locked to the bottom of the vehicle. Dozens of deputies in shades of green and khaki stood in formation watching over the hundreds of protesters who had descended upon the North Florida construction site, where a massive natural gas pipeline was being fitted into the ground.

Someone began strumming a guitar, and together, a collective voice sang out: People gonna rise like the water. We're gonna face this crisis now. One of the deputies began tapping a roll of zip ties against his hand as if playing a tambourine. He gave the protesters a thumbsup. The song continued: I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter. We're gonna shut this pipeline down!

But as someone led the group in prayer, another officer interrupted.

"All right, time's up!" he yelled. "Vacate the roadway!

Creating a human wall, the cops stood shoulder-to-shoulder and marched slowly toward the crowd, backing the protesters off the dirt road and into their cars. "Y'all go ahead and leave. Leave!"

By the time the sun set on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, police had arrested eight of the protesters, including the women chained to the truck. Twenty-five-year-old Alexa Oropesa, a Miami native, and 21-year-old Kaithleen Hernandez, a Florida International University graduate, were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest and held overnight at the Suwannee County Jail.

The arrests were largely symbolic, but to those in handcuffs, they amplified a vital message. "We know this fight is bigger than us," Hernandez said in a video after her release. "It's bigger than this one pipeline. It's all of them."

Halfway across the country, protests rocking the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock have energized environmentalists, sparked daily headlines, and forced federal action. But in Florida, the state has its own massive project rife with controversy: the $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Transmission Pipeline, which runs 515 miles from Alabama to Central Florida. In recent months, protests of Sabal Trail have led to at least 26 arrests and the death of a 66-year-old man who was shot by police after he fired a gun at the pipeline in late February.

The corporations behind the pipeline, including the parent company of Florida Power & Light, say the project will safely meet a growing demand for natural gas while bringing jobs and tax revenue to the three states through which it passes. They've promised to operate the pipeline in accordance with all regulations and say they are committed to being a good neighbor.

But activists paint a far darker picture of the project. Environmentalists warn that spilled equipment contaminants could leach into the soil or water and fear that construction above the Floridan Aquifer — which millions of residents depend on for drinking water — could damage fragile limestone protecting the vital water source. Others worry about residents along the project's route, more than 80 percent of whom live in poor and minority communities that will be disproportionately affected by the threat of explosions and dangerous emissions. The pipelines' builders, meanwhile, have showered millions of dollars on pliant politicians from both sides of the aisle — including Gov. Rick Scott, who once owned a stake in one of the companies backing Sabal Trail.

The pipeline's critics have a tough fight ahead. Up against not only billion-dollar energy companies, the small but growing resistance group also finds itself at odds with President Donald Trump, who recently signed an executive order expediting other pipelines. Sabal Trail reps say about 90 percent of the pipe is already in the ground. If all goes according to plan, gas should be flowing through the pipeline by late June.

But opponents say they still have hope. A court battle is ongoing over a Sierra Club lawsuit that argues the feds never should have approved a project that will pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Concerned citizens continue to photograph construction sites in the hopes of finding violations that could nick the companies building the pipeline. And protests have popped up across Florida, drawing awareness to the cause and starting a conversation about the role of corporate politics in modern society.

"We've started to cater to the private interest over the public interest, and this is a perfect example of it," says progressive activist Tim Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. "It's a needless, self-inflicted wound being dictated by corporate greed."

Protesters have gathered in North Florida, including Kaithleen Hernandez (left) and Alexa Oropesa, who locked themselves to a construction truck on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Protesters have gathered in North Florida, including Kaithleen Hernandez (left) and Alexa Oropesa, who locked themselves to a construction truck on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Photo by Thomas Lynn for the Suwannee Democrat

In the middle of the woods outside Live Oak, a city of 7,000 people about 40 minutes south of the Florida-Georgia line, a campfire crackles from the previous night and a fog envelopes the tree canopy. Other than the distant roar of cars on Interstate 10, all is still. By 8:15 a.m., the sun has risen, but the campers have not.

For months, the Sacred Water Camp has drawn protesters from Standing Rock; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere. Those who stay identify themselves as water protectors, a name that transcends their opposition to the pipeline and encapsulates what they hope to achieve: the preservation of our greatest natural resource.

"Water is everything, but fresh water is at threat," says Jordan Mossing, an excitable 27-year-old who quit his job at UPS, cashed out his 401(k), and headed on a cross-country bicycle trip from Toledo, Ohio.

Those congregated this February morning are crunchy but genteel, almost to a fault. Mossing wears a Bob Marley T-shirt and rambles excitedly about the life-changing power of love. An Indiana man who introduces himself as Roaming Wolf believes the camp should incorporate as a religious organization, a church of naturalism for folks eager to live off the land as their ancestors did. Many of them walk around barefoot, including Fallan Fontenot, a 23-year-old South Dakotan who wears her blue and purple hair in braided pigtails and jokes that her preferred mode of transportation is her "Lamborfeeties."

"You may think we're all just a bunch of hillbillies," she says, "but we really just care about our nature."

Though the ragtag crew is definitely an earthy bunch, portrayals of the protesters as out-of-touch tree-huggers does the disservice of obscuring the very real dangers of oil and gas pipelines. Although relatively rare, in the past 30 years pipeline accidents have killed 548 people, injured 2,576, and caused $8.5 billion in damage.

"The people dismissing those concerns don't think it could ever happen here, but I imagine the people who live in Flint, Michigan, never thought it could happen there either," Canova says. "The folks raising the alarm should be applauded for drawing attention to this."

Pipelines have crisscrossed the United States for about 150 years. Before then, companies moved oil by horse-drawn wagons, the cost of which far outweighed that of the oil itself. But in 1865, oil tycoon Samuel Van Syckel found a better way. In the foothills of the Appalachians, he dug the country's first oil pipeline in western Pennsylvania, extending a two-inch iron pipe five miles from a drilling site to a railroad station. The idea caught on, and companies soon began building increasingly longer lines.

By 1900, 6,800 miles of crude oil pipelines stretched across the nation. Pipelines carrying oil and natural gas now snake around 2.6 million miles of our country — enough to circle Earth 104 times.

Proponents say pipelines are ultimately far safer than trucking fuel across the country. They argue that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to oil or coal and has the potential to save consumers on their monthly utility bills.

But transporting fuel via pipeline has sometimes come at a huge cost to the public. In August 2000, 12 people at a campground near Carlsbad, New Mexico, were decimated in a gas pipeline explosion. The fireball was so large that it could be seen from 20 miles away and so hot that it melted sand into glass and turned concrete into powder. Investigators later found the operator hadn't properly inspected the corroding infrastructure.

In 2011, another natural gas pipeline exploded in Allentown, Pennsylvania, destroying eight homes and killing five people, including a 4-month-old. A state investigation discovered the pipeline company, UGI Utilities, had failed to complete a 30-year-old work order recommending the cast-iron pipe be replaced.

Florida pipelines have also ruptured. In 2013, a 30-inch Florida Gas Transmission Co. pipe delivering natural gas from South Texas to South Florida exploded, causing homes in Enon, Louisiana, to shake so violently that one resident told the local paper: "I thought it was Al-Qaeda blowing up a gas station."

One of the most destructive accidents happened in September 2010, when a 30-inch steel natural gas pipeline blew up, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco. During a criminal trial, current and former Pacific Gas and Electric Company employees testified that the company had intentionally chosen the cheapest inspection method, which it knew wasn't fully sufficient to find flaws. This past January, the company was fined the maximum criminal penalty of $3 million for violating safety laws.

The most damaging incidents tend to be caused by older pipes, which can be difficult to inspect for deterioration since they're buried underground. And aging pipelines are a real cause for concern in the United States: As was the case in San Bruno, more than half of the country's pipelines are at least 50 years old.

But newer pipelines have also posed problems. Only three years after it was installed, a 42-inch natural gas pipeline beneath Cuero, Texas, ruptured in June 2015, exploding into a 100-foot fireball and releasing 165,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds, which can cause cancer. Stunningly, state regulators declined to fine the company that operated the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, the same corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Critics say there's another reason behind so many deadly accidents: Even as pipeline technology has evolved, regulation has lagged. A 2012 ProPublica investigation found that only 7 percent of natural gas pipelines are required to undergo regular inspections by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency responsible for regulating the industry, which itself has been around since only 2004. Many of the agency's safety standards were written by the oil and gas companies themselves, and at least two top officials who've landed at PHMSA this decade are former industry employees.

The agency has also been criticized as chronically understaffed and strapped for cash. On the few occasions when PHMSA does crack down on negligent pipeline operators, the fines it levies are negligible compared to the profits oil and gas companies rake in through the lines.

"Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No," PHMSA's top official, Jeffrey Wiese, said bluntly at a 2013 industry conference in New Orleans.

The agency's most damning critic has been U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who once called PHMSA "a toothless tiger that has overdosed on quaaludes and is passed out on the job." Standing in front of a bar graph showing the disparity between tiny fines and towering damages, Speier said PHMSA's position that regulations are overly burdensome on pipeline companies "is the reasoning of movie villains, not well-intentioned safety professionals."

"Life has risks, but one of them shouldn't be coming home to find your husband and son and mother-in-law dead and your house obliterated, as happened to one of the families in my district," she said of the San Bruno incident.

Aside from safety concerns, environmentalists say pipeline projects pose another serious problem by undermining the market for renewable energy alternatives such as solar power. In 2014, the heads of 16 climate advocacy groups including the Sierra Club and Earthjustice asked President Barack Obama to take a stand against a growing U.S. trend of exporting fracked gas to other countries.

"We believe that the implementation of a massive [liquefied natural gas] export plan would lock in place infrastructure and economic dynamics that will make it almost impossible for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change," they wrote.

Translation: Once energy corporations make an investment in pipelines and get used to profiting off natural gas exports, it'll be really hard to stop them — and Planet Earth will pay the consequences.

The Sabal Trail Pipeline will run underneath the Suwannee River, part of which is steps away from the Sacred Water Camp in Live Oak, Florida.
The Sabal Trail Pipeline will run underneath the Suwannee River, part of which is steps away from the Sacred Water Camp in Live Oak, Florida.
Photo by Jessica Lipscomb

Leaving his opulent Mar-a-Lago estate on a recent Sunday afternoon to head back to the White House, President Trump slipped into a limousine and off to the Palm Beach International Airport. But roughly two miles into the 15-minute drive, the commander in chief was confronted by swarms of protesters lining Southern Boulevard. Waving signs that read "You can't drink $" and "There is no Planet B," an angry mob shouted at the motorcade.

"Planet over profit! Health over wealth!" they chanted.

Some booed Trump; at least one guy flicked him off. "Water is life!" they yelled as he whizzed by. "Stop Sabal Trail!"

Though the battle over the Sabal Trail Pipeline has intensified in recent months, the opposition movement now getting headlines started long ago. From the very beginning, residents along the proposed path have organized community meetings, railed against Sabal Trail representatives, and begged local lawmakers to oppose the project. It's only because their objections were voiced in small rural communities, away from TV cameras, that they haven't garnered national attention until now.

"This is a fight that's been going on since late 2013," says Michael Noll, a professor of geopolitics at Georgia's Valdosta State University and president of Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy, an activism group. "In the last couple of months, the Standing Rock protests have given us a new energy. A lot of people are waking up."

The idea for Sabal Trail has been around since at least 2009, when Florida Power & Light initially proposed building a pipeline from Martin County on the Treasure Coast to Bradford County, just north of Gainesville. But the Florida Public Service Commission rejected the proposal over concerns it wasn't cost-effective.

Going back to the drawing board, FPL opened bidding in December 2012 for an ambitious new pipeline that would hook up to a natural gas hub in Alabama and run down to FPL's natural gas power plant in Martin County. This time, the state agency approved, signing off on the project in October 2013.

The protest movement mobilized soon afterward, and residents began packing city council chambers to voice their objections. This time, it wasn't just regular folks who were worried. In October 2015, the EPA wrote a widely disseminated letter arguing that the pipeline would negatively affect nearly 700 acres of Florida wetlands and 145 acres of the state's conservation areas. The agency also expressed concerns over the pipeline's proposed route across the aquifer and the potential impact on drinking water.

Before the end of the year, though, another division of the EPA reversed course, saying the agency had changed its mind after meeting with Sabal Trail reps. In February 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the project. In August, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the final permits needed to begin construction on Sabal Trail, a joint venture of Spectra Energy, Duke Energy, and NextEra, FPL's parent company.

The next month, the Sierra Club filed its federal suit against FERC, saying the agency hadn't given enough weight to concerns about climate change or the low-income communities along the pipeline's route. "Based on these numerous failures, FERC's decision to issue the certificates... is contrary to the public interest," the lawsuit says.

While Alabama and Georgia have their own concerns, many in Florida worry about the impact on the state's vulnerable natural environment. Maps show the pipeline will cut across the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers and through the Green Swamp, a 560,000-acre water source classified as an area of critical state concern. The route also travels over the Floridan Aquifer, which provides drinking water for 60 percent of Floridians.

The companies building Sabal Trail have admitted in documents that construction "will include temporary and permanent impacts on vegetation, wildlife habitat, and waterbodies," though they argue their purchase of $12 million in "mitigation credits" will offset that impact. Not everyone agrees.

"It's not really con-struction," says Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, a Sierra Club organizer. "It's de-struction of wetlands and virgin forests, where wildlife will always be impacted."

Activists like Roaming Wolf (left) and Fallan Fontenot say their larger goal is to fight for clean water.
Activists like Roaming Wolf (left) and Fallan Fontenot say their larger goal is to fight for clean water.
Photo by Jessica Lipscomb

Environmentalists also question whether the state's Swiss-cheese-like karst terrain, which is filled with random holes and gaps, can support such a massive infrastructure project. Some argue the pipeline could collapse in that kind of terrain.

"Sinkholes are cavities that open up in the ground, often unpredictably, and are caused by water erosion," Canova the activist warned in a widely shared post on Medium. "All that has to happen is for one sinkhole to open up unexpectedly underneath the pipeline and a billion gallons of fracked gas will spill into the aquifer — and the entire state of Florida will look like Flint, Michigan."

(Sabal Trail's builders dismiss those concerns; in a statement sent to New Times, a spokeswoman says that after consulting with PHMSA and the DOT, "no one was aware of pipeline incidents related to sinkholes or karst terrain." She says the fuel will travel through the pipeline in a gaseous state that would not contaminate the water supply.)

Allegations of corruption have also haunted the pipeline. Critics point out that Gov. Rick Scott once had a $108,000 investment in Spectra and its affiliate, DCP Midstream Partners. As first reported by Florida Bulldog, Scott hadn't yet disclosed his stake in the companies when he signed a law expediting the permitting process for pipeline operators in 2013. (Scott's spokeswoman, Jeri Bustamante, says the governor's assets have been in a blind trust since he took office in 2011, meaning he has no knowledge of any of the transactions, including those involving the pipeline affiliates.)

But Scott is far from the only Florida lawmaker who's given the project a thumbs-up. The state's second most prominent Republican leader, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, has also backed pipeline infrastructure, at one point describing Sabal Trail as a victim of "government-created obstacles." Campaign finance records show he was a top recipient of Spectra dollars last year, when his campaign pocketed $10,000 from the energy corporation.

It's not just GOP politicians who have made pipeline operators feel welcome in Florida, though. Rubio's Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson, has so far been silent on Sabal Trail, and Florida's controversial new billionaire Democratic Party chairman, Stephen Bittel, who owns a petroleum investment firm, hinted at his approval for pipeline infrastructure in an interview earlier this year.

Considering how much cash the companies tied to Sabal have thrown at Florida politicians, it's maybe not a surprise that elected leaders on both sides of the aisle have been complicit. In 2016, Spectra spent $1.4 million lobbying Congress against pipeline regulations, giving $395,000 to 84 Republicans and 29 Democrats in the last election cycle. NextEra Energy Resources was also a top donor to Nelson's and Rubio's Senate campaigns last year.

"It's very disheartening to see the political establishment of both parties absolutely silent on this," Canova says. "A lot of people believe this is the result of the campaign contributions they've been taking from the fossil fuel industry."

The political maneuvering has also made it easy for those companies to railroad residents, says Noll, the geopolitics professor. "Basically, when you have organizations like Spectra Energy that have far-reaching political influence, they can easily misuse eminent domain and the Natural Gas Act to push for projects like this that are supposedly in the public interest."

It's apparent that's already happening. To date, Sabal Trail has filed 25 eminent-domain lawsuits against homeowners in Florida and about 145 suits against homeowners in Alabama and Georgia for easements on their properties. All told, more than 1,500 property owners will be directly affected by the pipeline's construction, a number that doesn't capture those who live on neighboring properties. The Sierra Club's Malwitz-Jipson says there are instances where the pipeline runs very close to an adjacent property, although there's no legal requirement for the gas companies to notify the neighbor.

"You can literally have a bedroom five feet away from the corridor, but it's not on your land, so that's not part of the equation," she says. "The only people they have to tell are the property owners."

The same holds true for renters, she says. "What we're finding is, especially in apartment-dwelling areas, the landlord might know about this but the tenants don't."

Residents of Marion County, home to Ocala, are especially fired up about Sabal Trail, and for good reason: The pipeline is less than a mile from two of its public schools in the town of Dunnellon. Because of public records laws, parents of students at those two schools aren't even allowed to read a copy of the school district's emergency plan to see what would be done in the case of a fire or explosion. Marion County Public Schools has not taken a public stance on the pipeline.

"It is not a school district issue. It's a federal project going in on private lands," district spokesman Kevin Christian says.

Sabal Trail also plans to use a site in Dunnellon (population: 1,700) for one of its compressor stations. Set intermittently along the route to pressurize the gas, compressor stations have historically been prone to fires and explosions and are sometimes viewed as possible terrorism targets because of their volatility.

Other populations also stand to lose. Because the route travels through several pine forests and watermelon farms in North Florida, the pipeline could adversely affect agricultural workers, says Jeannie Economos, a coordinator with the Farmworker Association of Florida.

"There's not only a risk to the farmworkers themselves, but also to the crops and the agricultural industry," Economos says. "Any kind of damage to the pipeline where the crops are affected, and farmworkers will also lose their jobs."

In fact, more than 80 percent of the pipeline goes through so-called environmental justice populations, says Elly Benson, an attorney for the Sierra Club. "That generally translates to minority and low-income communities," she says. "The gist of it is that the pipeline is cutting through these communities that are already overburdened by pollution."

Any one of those concerns — whether the environmental impact, the physical hazards, the shady approval process, or the disruption of people along the route — should give residents of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida serious pause about the multibillion-dollar project, Noll says.

"If everyone would just be honest and sit down and look at the pros and cons, I don't think anyone who has even a little bit of a brain left would say this is a good idea, because it's not," he says. "It's an idea that belongs in the last century or the last millennium."

Protesters at the Sacred Water Camp like Roaming Wolf have a difficult fight ahead, because 97 percent of the pipeline has already been built.
Protesters at the Sacred Water Camp like Roaming Wolf have a difficult fight ahead, because 97 percent of the pipeline has already been built.
Photo by Jessica Lipscomb

Back at Sacred Water Camp on a cool February morning, six men and two women join hands in prayer, forming a circle around the campfire and passing around a bundle of burning sage to clear the air. Roaming Wolf leads them in the invocation.

"Great Spirit, we stand here together on this Mother Earth," he prays. "Let's spread the message that we can all have peace and we can all be united again in this world."

Wolf, a 45-year-old with a graying goatee and blue-gray eyes, wears camo pants and a black baseball cap emblazoned with a Bocephus lyric: "I'll keep my guns, money, and freedom. You keep the change."

Like most of the campers, he isn't from Florida. Born in Indiana, he says he lived for a time on an Indian reservation with his grandmother, who was Cherokee. Twice divorced and a father of 14 children, Wolf says he has more or less been a nomad his entire adult life. Disturbed by what was happening in Standing Rock, he traveled to Florida in December to challenge the construction of the pipeline and establish a southernmost opposition camp.

"It's in our instincts," he says. "If someone attacks our Mother, we're gonna defend her."

By now, the pipe has already been laid beneath Suwannee County, and construction has moved south toward Central Florida as crews work to build out the last 10 percent of the 515-mile pipeline. Water protectors like Roaming Wolf say their best hope for stopping the pipeline lies not at their protest camps, but in a courtroom in D.C. On April 18, the court will hear arguments from both the Sierra Club and the federal agency that approved the Sabal Trail Pipeline.

"We can protest all we want, but we know our public interest is not held in any high regard at any state agency, or federal agency for that matter," says the Sierra Club's Malwitz-Jipson. "It takes a legal basis to stop something this big. It's not going to happen with simply a protest sign in your hand."

Benson, the group's attorney, says the Sierra Club originally asked for a stay to stop Sabal Trail's construction while the case made its way through the legal system. But the court denied the group's request, meaning that while the legal battle has dragged on, crews have continued laying the pipe.

Even as money and the media have flowed into Standing Rock — where North Dakota authorities have evacuated the main protest camp — Florida's activists are frustrated that it's taken so long to get people interested in stopping the pipeline here.

"From my point of view, it's both disappointing as well as inspiring to see people now coming into the fold," says Noll, the Georgia professor.

While the pipeline lawsuit is pending, the fate of Sacred Water Camp also hangs in the balance. Although nearly 200 people stayed overnight for the protests on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the camp attracted far fewer activists in February. Many were frustrated by the lack of organization and definitive plan of attack.

"We were looking for direct action, which doesn't seem to be what's going on at this camp," says Tom Freed, a 28-year-old Pennsylvanian who rode down from an Occupy Inauguration protest with a friend in late January. "It seems like a place mostly to come down for a few days and move on."

Lately, though, protests have taken a more extreme turn. On February 22, two protesters crawled 250 feet into a pipe in Marion County and locked themselves together. After hazmat teams were called in to forcibly extract them, both were arrested on felony charges.

Four days later, an incident turned deadly at another stretch of the pipeline in Marion County when a man with a high-powered rifle began shooting at construction equipment. Deputies chased 66-year-old James Leroy Marker south to Citrus County after he fled in a white Chevy pickup. The officers say they were forced to shoot Marker when he waved his gun at them. Though his motives remain unclear, most protesters have disavowed his actions.

With the clock ticking until gas runs through the line, Sabal Trail's opponents say giving up is not an option. Noll says he's reminded of the time his activist group stood up against a biomass incinerator they were told was a done deal. But after two years of fighting, the plans were scrapped and the company ultimately caved.

"If we get together, nobody can stop us," he says. "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

While Canova cops to being an optimist, he says he's heartened by the way Floridians continue to come together against the pipeline.

"Even if the whole thing is built, there's still time before they hit the switch and let the gas start running through it," he says. "I don't think it's ever too late. What if six months or a year or ten years from now, there's a terrible accident or several accidents, several leaks, several spills? When that happens, there'll be an outcry: 'To hell with this investment. Let's shut this pipeline down.'"


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