Construction is underway for a $3.2 billion, 515-mile-long interstate gas pipeline, running from central Alabama, through southwestern Georgia, and deep into Central Florida. The Sabal Trail Pipeline is a project of Duke Energy, NextEra Energy, and Spectra Energy. Spectra is the fossil fuel corporation responsible for other controversial pipelines also under construction – notably the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) Project. AIM, the target of ongoing protests in the Hudson Valley (NY) and elsewhere, would run from central New Jersey to ports in the Boston, MA area, passing within a few hundred feet of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River.
The Sabal Trail project is touted by Spectra to be crucial to aiding economic development along its route, and fueling gas-fired power generators in the Southeast United States. Environmentalists, however, view the project quite differently. Such development plans rarely come without a cost to communities, and to the environment.
A Unique Geology
Reflecting its geological origins as part of a shallow ancient ocean, the southeastern United States is underlain by porous limestone bedrock, known as karst. Water running through the karst bedrock flows not only through small pores, but often through extensive underground caves. When under under pressure, water can bubble up to the surface in a multitude of freshwater springs throughout the region. It’s not hard to imagine how contamination to the limestone aquifer in one area can spread rapidly and widely.
The karst bedrock, due to the sometimes large voids in its structure, is also prone to the formation of sinkholes, some of which are small; others are large enough to swallow whole buildings. Recognizing these risks, opponents of the Sabal Trail pipeline frequently cite the inherent danger of pipelines bending and rupturing should the ground beneath them give way, leading to potentially dangerous gas leakages or explosions.
One piece of recent research from the University of Georgia maps the prevalence of sinkholes in Doughterty County, GA, one of the many counties the Sabal Trail pipeline would pass through. For reference, FracTracker has added the path of the pipeline to the Dougherty County map, above.
In the interactive map below, we show the full proposed pipeline route and associated compressor stations. Karst geology, documented sinkholes, and springs near the route of the pipeline are also shown. The double-arrows in the upper right corner of the map will launch a full-screen view of the map, including a map legend. Use the “Layers” dropdown along the top bar of that map to turn on locations of nearby schools and hospitals that could be impacted by a nearby pipeline emergency. In addition, a “Bookmarks” dropdown menu along the same top bar that will allow zooming to locations along the pipeline mentioned in this article.
Map of the proposed Sabal Trail pipeline route, karst geology, and known sinkholes
In October 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a scathing letter detailing the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the Floridan Aquifer, water quality, and ecology in this region of sensitive karst geology. Two months later, however, in mid-December, the EPA suddenly reversed its position. While reasons included an endorsement of industry’s choices to avoid “many of the most sensitive areas” that could be impacted, ABC News has suggested that political favoritism could have played a role, as well. This video, published on November 24, 2016 by ABC/FirstCoast News, describes that situation, and also includes excellent footage of construction impacts.
Currently, the construction is proceeding. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has granted eminent domain to industry to build the project through seized private property. Although all federal permits for the pipeline construction are in place, a joint lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, and Flint Riverkeeper has challenged that permitting process. There is opposition to the pipeline in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida–the three states in which construction is occurring.
The video clips below documents the noise associated with the pipeline’s construction, as well as views of the sinkhole terrain along its route.
Sabal Trail gas transmission, at O’Brien (Hildreth) Compressor Station in Northern Florida.
Credit: Merrillee on Vimeo.
As winter descends on the northern Plains, thousands of indigenous people representing hundreds of tribes, as well as non-Native allies, have gathered in camps near the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation to pray and protest the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would drill an oil pipeline through sacred Native lands and under the Missouri River. Participants in this movement are united by the words “Water Is Life” (Mni Wiconi), in recognition of the threats that an oil spill would present to their homeland and the source of drinking water for the tribe. Hundreds of arrests of peaceful protesters have been made there in recent months, many resulting in serious injuries to the protesters as water cannons, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and attack dogs have been used in efforts to intimidate the activists.
Coordination among First Nations groups against other fossil fuel infrastructure is happening elsewhere, too. For example, in September 2016, at least fifty US and Canadian aboriginal groups signed a treaty, saying they will work together to fight proposals that would bring crude oil from the Alberta tar sands via pipeline, tanker, and rail.
The protests against the Sabal Trail Project are similarly themed to those at Standing Rock, but have not resulted in violence towards protesters thus far. Along the Suwanee River in Florida, peaceful protesters have assembled at the Sacred Waters encampment and, on November 12, 2016, faced off with authorities in an effort to stop pipeline drilling under the Santa Fe River between Branford and Fort White, Florida. 14 people were arrested in that protest. Demonstrations at the site continue, with a dawn march and demonstration that began just after sunrise on November 26th. No arrests were made on that day. Another protest encampment, the Crystal Waters Camp, is also in place near Fort Drum, Florida, where observers noted hydrocarbon releases from the pipeline construction into Fort Drum Creek and destruction of wildlife by a pipeline crew. Still other protests about the potential environmental risks posed by the Sabal Trail have taken place recently in both Orlando and Live Oak, Florida.
Even in the phases of construction, environmentalists in Georgia discovered that the Sabal Trail pipeline had started leaking drilling mud from a pilot hole into the Withlacooche River in late October, and continued to ooze turbid mud for at least three weeks. Environmental advocates from the WWALS (the Withlacoochee, Alapaha, Little, and Upper Suwannee River) Watershed Coalition raised concerns that if a pilot hole could cause such a leakage, what could happen once full-scale directional drilling was occurring?
By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator