Two of Florida’s largest energy companies want to build a pipeline for natural gas through the center of the state – but environmentalists say it could negatively impact wetlands and the state’s aquifer. The Gulf Restoration Network is one of the groups opposing what’s called the Sabal Trail pipeline. WMNF News spoke with their coastal campaign organizer, Johanna de Graffenreid on the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg.
Listen to the full interview here (video below) …
“So the Sabal Trail pipeline is a 515 mile long, fracked gas pipeline that’ll run from Alabama through Georgia and Florida, if it’s allowed to go through. Some of our concerns include wetland impacts, community health impacts and especially impacts to the Floridan aquifer, which is the main drinking water source for Florida. With 60% of the water that Florida relies on, coming from that aquifer, which this pipeline is supposed to go over, under and literally through at some points.”
And how does the geology of Florida add to your concerns about why that would be a problem?
“So, you all in Florida have some incredible geology here, that makes these beautiful springs and river systems, it’s called Karst geology. It means that you have a limestone bedrock. And that’s been described to me as Swiss cheese that likes to make its own holes. So, you end up with these spontaneous sinkholes throughout this section of Florida that the pipeline is going to go through.
“I honestly can’t say that I would ever choose to put a highly pressurized and explosive pipeline through an area in which there is spontaneous sinkhole creation. And especially compressor stations that have a lot of energy but also a lot of health risk concerned with them directly on top of that kind of geology, as well.
“And the EPA was also concerned about that. In their October 26th letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is the agency that is going to permit one part of this pipeline, they stated that they have the exact same concerns that we do.”
Did the EPA go back on it and actually permit this?
“So, the EPA doesn’t actually have any permitting roles, when it comes to pipelines. Which I think is something that is important for the public to know. So, the EPA, NEPA division, which is the National Environmental Policy Act, they’re the ones who are responsible in the EPA for making sure that FERC, who is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, does their due diligence and makes sure that the company is obeying all of our national environmental laws.
“And so the EPA, NEPA division stated repeatedly that they have problems with the environmental impact statements for this project. Now, unfortunately the EPA water division, out of your same region, determines that regardless of all of the concerns that the community has and that their colleagues have, that even with very few little and new information, that they no longer have any concerns about the project.
“We don’t understand how that’s possible, considering the fact that in Florida, your water management districts haven’t even issued the permits for the project yet. And we don’t know how they’re able to determine the impacts to your water, without that information.”
And it could go through, but, there are still some land issues that are holding it up. Some of the land owners are getting sued for eminent domain takeover by this company.
“So, currently we have over 160 eminent domain lawsuits throughout the pipeline project. Over 25 of those are here in Florida, mostly in Osceola County, so just a few counties over from us here in St. Petersburg.
“Now, in addition to the eminent domain proceedings, this company still has to get its permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. So, it’s not just FERC that permits these projects, it’s also the Army Corps. They’re responsible for looking out for our wetlands and our water and we feel that they need to make sure that they’re doing a supplemental review of this project. Because all of the information simply hasn’t been provided to them by the company.
“And there’s been ourselves, the Gulf Restoration Network, but, also concerned community members and other environmental groups that have filed – on the record – about their objections and concerns. And those have not yet been responded to. We simply feel that the Army Corps should do some further study before they permit something that could have long lasting impacts on our water, here in Florida.”
The companies that own this pipeline, they want to construct it starting very soon. But it sounds like that there might not be permits. Who are the companies that own it and why do they want it?
“So, the main companies behind this project are, first of all, Duke Energy and Florida Power and Light. Which are big energy players, here in the southeast. And then the companies specifically contracted to build the pipeline are Spectra Energy and Williams, as well as NextEra Energy. And so, Spectra Energy is a former shoot-off of Duke Energy. NextEra is a former shoot-off of Florida Power and Light. So, they’re really good bedfellows with one another and they’ve worked closely together over the years.
“They want this pipeline, because they say that there’s a need for more fracked gas in Florida. Now, in 2009, your own Public Service Commission here in Florida stated that that was not true. And your Governor, at the time, vetoed a similar project. So, how is it that in just a couple of years, that has changed? Well, it’s because Duke and Florida Power and Light have chosen to build out their infrastructure sides of the project first. Even though they haven’t begun construction, they’re relying on this permit for this pipeline to go through for their project.
“There’s not a current demand, they’re creating a demand for this project, that’s totally unnecessary.”
What’s the route through central Florida? Is there any impact on wetlands, like the Green Swamp?
“I think that’s something that’s so important to talk about, especially in this part of Florida. So, the impact to the Green Swamp is going to be that there’s over 360 acres of wetlands, in the Green Swamp, that will be impacted. It’s important to note as a part of that, that there’s over 1,000 acres of wetlands that are going to be impacted throughout the project. And you all are bearing the brunt of that.
“A third of those impacts are going to go just to this one swamp area. And the reason why the Green Swamp is so important, for your listeners who probably already know this, but, just in case, it’s the wellhead for the Floridan aquifer. So, it’s the major recharge zone, in the area, for your state’s primary drinking water source. So, covering it up is not the best idea, to say the least.”
Florida relies heavily on natural gas – as you’ve been saying “fracked natural gas” – but there are other alternatives. Why would you say that there should be things like solar used, as opposed to fossil fuels? Why should we transition to things that are different from natural gas?
“Two reasons: first of all, because fracking, which is where we get our natural gas from currently in the United States, for the most part. And we’re transitioning further and further to exploring fracked gas, has huge environmental impacts and community health impacts. We simply can’t fill these pipelines with water that’s poisoned communities further upstream. So, that’s one reason why. But the other reason why is because we’ve made a commitment to start working on climate change, here in the United States. And binding ourselves into another fossil fuel infrastructure, is not the way to abide by the contracts and commitments that we’ve made internationally.”
There are climate dangers to natural gas pipelines, but, what about the health dangers? We saw this giant natural gas leak in southern California, recently. And natural gas is an explosive gas. What are the health impacts?
“There are several health impacts from this project–from the pipeline. First of all, we’ve seen that there were over 704 pipeline incidents in 2014 alone, according to our Federal agencies. Now, it’s important to note that companies self-report to those agencies, so there’s probably many more impacts that we don’t know about.
“In those leaks, there’s climate impacts, there’s health impacts and air quality impacts. The compressor stations that go along with this pipeline, to keep the pressure nice and tight and keep the gas moving through the pipeline, those also have big health impacts. We’ve seen in Pennsylvania, that if you live within 2 miles of one of these compressor stations, that you can face things like nose bleed, cardiovascular and health issues, you’re being exposed to carcinogens. So much so that the EPA is now considering promulgating a new rule specifically to address the health impacts and air quality impacts from natural gas – fracked gas – infrastructure, here in the United States. Unfortunately, this permit is trying to go through at a time where those rules don’t apply yet.”
There might be an increase in the number of proposed compressors in the area?
“Yeah, so we just found out, actually, that the Hillabee Expansion Project, which is one section of this pipeline that’s supposed to go through Osceola county, has now requested for 3 specific compressor stations, just in that section of the pipeline alone. And that is where this company is facing the primary challenges from eminent domain, here in this state. So, I think it’s pretty audacious for them, while they’re facing those challenges, and have not yet received all of their permits, to now request for further infrastructure, in this project.”
We’re a couple counties away from Osceola, why should we care in Pinellas County or across the Bay in Tampa or nearer to that area, Polk County. Why should we even care about this?
“Well, two reasons: first, your water still comes from the Floridan aquifer, right? We can’t drink salt water. And so, while the Gulf is beautiful, we can’t drink it.
“So, here in St. Pete and on the coast of Florida, it’s really important that we preserve areas that are directly impacting our water sources. In fact, the EPA is considering the Floridan aquifer for a sole source aquifer status. To put a natural gas or any fossil fuel infrastructure through that, at a time when that is being considered, is highly irresponsible. Because, to be considered for that sole source aquifer status, you have to provide a huge proportion of people’s drinking water from it.
“So, first of all, you should be concerned about it in all parts of Florida, because it might impact your drinking water source. And number two, because this is a major artery that’s going to cut through the woodland and wetland and farm areas of your state. Now, it’s going to do that in order build out fossil fuel infrastructure for possibly the next 20 to 50 years.
“If Florida is serious about moving to renewables, it should not commit itself to a new fracked gas pipeline to build out further fossil fuel infrastructure.”
And my final question has to do with a different pipeline and you may or may not have an answer. I read in AP last week that the Palmetto pipeline was cancelled in Georgia. Why is that important? What is the Palmetto pipeline and why was that decision important?
“So, the Palmetto pipeline is an oil pipeline. And it was scheduled to go from South Carolina, Georgia into Florida. Georgia did an outstanding job of recognizing that this was going to, in no way, benefit their residents and stated that they would not be permitting that pipeline.
“One thing that’s important for folks to know about that’s slightly different, is that the Sabal Trail pipeline is a fracked gas pipeline. And so, while the Palmetto decision is very important, it doesn’t directly impact our choices with the Sabal Trail pipeline as a result of Georgia’s decision. However, the Georgia legislature did recently deny Sabal Trail their river crossing easements in their state. And so, we’re trying to determine now, whether or not this pipeline that we are facing here in Florida, around fracked gas is going to need to actually take up more space in Florida? Have more impacts in Florida? Are they simply going to avoid Georgia? Or are they going to go through further eminent domain proceedings?”
Those are my only questions. Is there anything else that I left out?
“I would just really just urge Floridians to talk to their county commissioners about the fact there is not a real need for this pipeline. That we should not be creating false demands for fossil fuels and then taking people’s private and personal property to fulfill those company demands.”