South Georgia pipeline plan fuels fight

Southwest Georgia is roiling mad over a proposed gas pipeline to Florida that virtually nobody in Atlanta, except Ted Turner, has heard about.

The 157-mile Sabal Trail pipeline would cross nine Georgia counties, four rivers, three state parks and thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive wetlands, forests and meadows. Opposition is strongest at the end points – Albany and Valdosta.

The fight over the pipeline, proposed by Houston-based Spectra Energy, reflects the increasingly tense battle over America’s energy future and echoes many of the arguments brandished in the national debate over the Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Canada to the Gulf coast.

Spectra says two existing natural gas pipelines into Florida are near capacity and that potential clients, including Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy, will need more gas in the future.

Opponents, who include hundreds of local officials, farmers, retirees, college students, geologists, big landowners and a former U.S. Senator, say building more pipelines is bad energy policy or just don’t want one on or near their properties.

The controversy comes as pipeline projects proliferate across Georgia. Hearings are being held in East Georgia over plans to build a $1 billion gas, diesel and ethanol pipeline to run from South Carolina to Florida with terminals near Augusta and Savannah.

A pipeline carrying imported gas from Savannah to Atlanta could be reversed to export gas by 2017. And Atlanta Gas Light hopes gas will begin flowing north from Coweta County to Dalton via a 111-mile line that same year.

“Atlanta is surrounded by fossil fuel invaders with more pipelines likely in the future,” said John S. Quarterman, a leader of the anti-Sabal Trail campaign in Valdosta. “But there’s no need for any of this now that solar power is cheaper, far cleaner than oil or gas and doesn’t require pipelines, terminals, compressor stations, eminent domain or environmental degradation.”

Initial decision soon

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is weighing Spectra’s request and expects to issue a preliminary decision soon. Final approval could come by year’s end with construction underway by mid-2016.

“We are working to ensure that we are in the best location for the pipeline,” said Andrea Grover, a Spectra spokeswoman “We want to be good neighbors.”

U.S. natural gas production is up 50 percent the past decade, diminishing coal consumption but raising new environmental issues surrounding the drilling technique known as fracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t convinced Sabal Trail is needed and asked FERC last April to determine the “necessity versus convenience” of the project. The EPA questioned if the two existing pipelines are running full and whether the added capacity will be needed long-term.

Sabal Trail “does nothing to benefit us,” said Jed Daniel, 37, whose Terrell County cotton and peanut farm is targeted for a mile-long section of pipe. “They’re using us. They’ll make a mint and we’re left with the liability.”

By law, Spectra can acquire rights-of-way by eminent domain — but only if some of the gas carried is consumed in Georgia. Spectra last fall announced a deal with the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia to tap into the pipeline near Albany and Moultrie for an undetermined future use.

But the city of Albany and surrounding Dougherty County have each passed resolutions opposing the pipeline, as have Terrell and Lowndes counties and the city of Valdosta. Critics say the taps are solely to justify use of eminent domain.

“The most powerful argument against the pipeline is that virtually all the cities and counties in Southwest Georgia that might be affected by this pipeline say they don’t want it,” said Steve Caley, an attorney with Atlanta-based GreenLaw representing Spectra opponents.

“The citizens sure could use some help from their governor in raising questions about a pipeline that won’t benefit anyone in Georgia and takes people’s private property through eminent domain.”

Gov. Nathan Deal declined comment.

‘Suspicion, mistrust and resentment’

Gloria Gaines, at a packed hearing in Albany last year, accused Spectra of fueling “suspicion, mistrust and resentment in the community.” Gaines, a retired MARTA official, singled out Spectra’s purchase of a plot of land on the city’s south – and predominantly African-American – side for a pipeline pump station.

A Spectra official at the meeting said the 11-acre site was purchased on spec, but nonetheless acknowledged violating the community’s trust by not being more open to concerns.

A Baptist church, the city’s airport, subdivisions, a Christian school and the city’s water intake plant lie close to the proposed pump station.

“No issue has so galvanized this community,” Gaines, a former Dougherty County commissioner, said recently. “There will be noise pollution. It’s a threat to our groundwater. It’s a job-killer for our struggling community. And there are communities far more rural (and less-populated) than this, the largest African-American community in the region.”

Spectra’s Grover said the nearest home will experience a decibel level no louder than “a modern-day dishwasher.”

Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner, who owns the nearby Nonami Plantation, a 9,000-acre hunting preserve along the banks of the Flint River, worries that noise from the pump station will interfere with the mating habits of quail among other environmental dangers. He filed a brief with FERC opposing the pipeline that would run a half-mile through his property.

It would also cross a dozen quail-hunting plantations, including Morrison Pines Plantation in Moultrie, and a 7,000-acre cattle and timber farm owned by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

Morrison Pines is home to “some of the most diverse habitat in the world,” including longleaf pines, orchids, three types of Pitcher plant, Bachman’s sparrows and Red-cockaded woodpeckers, said John Carlton, whose family created the plantation out of an old turpentine operation along the Ochlockonee River.

Opposition ‘premature’

“The opposition is premature because we don’t know where the route will go and we don’t have approval by FERC,” said Carlton, an attorney. “Until those issues are resolved I’m not prepared to make a decision whether or not to give them an easement. It also depends on how much money they want to give us.”

Carlton said he might sign off on the project if the flora and fauna are protected. FERC could also order an alternative route; Spectra is considering other paths.

Regardless of route, Sabal Trail opponents fear pipeline construction could create sinkholes that drain streams or puncture subterranean waterways. Much of the ground below southwest Georgia is limestone that allows water to flow easily between streams, springs and wells. Leaks, they fear, could send gas into the water supply.

“Pipelines are the safest form of transporting natural gas,” responded Grover, adding that Sabal Trail would piggyback on existing gas and electric transmission lines for 70 percent of its journey through Georgia. “We want to operate a safe pipeline, stay in business and be part of the communities once we get there.”

Spectra has cobbled together 20 percent of the needed easements along the main proposed route and cleared the land around the Albany pump station. Opponents say they’re not giving in.

“They want to pay you money for your land, but money is not just everything,” said Rosalyn Bridges, who owns 300 acres in Mitchell County. “Air and water can not be replaced. They are gifts from God, your creator. We have the Garden of Eden down here.”

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