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Sabal Trail Pipeline Leaves Trail Of Uncertainty In Its Wake

A 515-mile pipeline is being placed through northern and central Florida. When it's completed, it will supply natural gas from the North and Midwest to power plants throughout the state. And the construction has attracted protesters and fired up neighbors affected by the project.

You have to try really hard to reach Robin Koon's trailer. It takes a drive down a mile-long dirt road with sand ruts that test any four-wheel drive. At the dead end, you reach a locked fence with a 'No Trespassing' sign. Once inside, you're greeted with an upside-down American flag at half staff.

Koon, a soft-spoken Navy veteran with a brush mustache, drives a school bus during the week. He moved to this remote homestead in rural Levy County to get a bit of quiet.

But his homestead's not so quiet any more. A stone's throw from his trailer, truck after truck rumbles over a wooden boardwalk set in the marshland, cutting down trees and hauling them away.

The noise is the least of his concerns. Once the trees are cut and the trucks are gone, the Sabal Trail Pipeline will be here -  forever. Just three feet from his property line.

"Ok, if it leaks, I don't think I have too much to worry about," he said.

Credit Steve Newborn/WUSF News
Robin Koon, right, with his 86-year-old mother

That's because the pipeline is within spitting distance of a high-tension power line.

"Static (is) coming off the line. I'm definitely in the 'incineration zone', " he said.

When asked where he got that term, Koon said, "That's what they told me. That if it blows up, you don't have anything to worry about, because you're gone."

And his reaction to that?

"Thank you very damn much."

This is just one small section of a 515-mile pipeline stretching through Alabama, southern Georgia and north central Florida, ending at a power plant near Kissimmee. An extension is planned through Polk County south to Martin County, on the Atlantic coast.


Nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands in three states are affected by the project. The pipeline is cutting a swath through some of the most pristine places in Florida, including this chunk of the Nature Coast, underlain with springs, sinkholes and major rivers, such as the Suwanee, Santa Fe and Withlacoochee. Some environmentalists say this karst geology could collapse of sections of the pipe, possibly causing a gas leak.

Officials with Sabal Trail Transmission did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The company is a joint venture between Spectra Energy, which operates pipelines clear through Canada, NextEra Energy and Duke Energy. On the Sabal Trail website, the companies tout the pipeline as supplying "affordable, clean natural gas supplies to Florida, while increasing the reliability of the region's energy delivery system."

And the project already has the approval of both the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which declined comment but referred to reports posted online.

Here's a statement from Florida DEP:

DEP was responsible for reviewing and authorizing permits necessary for the pipeline’s construction within Florida, which include: Air Construction Permits, Environmental Resource Permits (ERP) and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.
During the permitting process, the department met with Sabal Trail multiple times, and numerous changes were made to adjust the pipeline route in Florida to ensure minimal environmental impacts and to protect water quality and avoid potential spring impacts.
Specifically, in order to minimize potential impacts at Suwanee River State Park and eliminate any surface construction activity within the park, permit conditions required the pipeline to be installed below ground within the park boundaries. The staging areas and drill entry and exit points were outside of the park boundaries and were located on adjacent parcels that are privately owned, previously disturbed land.  By requiring the pipe to be run underground - beneath waterways and surface structures such as roads - this method eliminated both water quality impacts to the river and the need for tree or other vegetation removal within the park.
As we do in the processing of all applications, the department ensured that the permit applications met all requirements of Florida law and that the applicant demonstrated reasonable assurance that the state's wetlands and water resources will be protected.
The department continues to oversee the state permitted activities to ensure permit conditions are met through required monitoring and reporting, as well as inspections and site visits throughout project construction.
DEP continues to conduct frequent compliance inspections. DEP staff have conducted multiple site inspections already including surface water inspections along both the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers and associated springs - upstream and downstream of construction activities - to ensure there are no turbidity issues or water quality violations. During these inspections, staff observed no unauthorized discharges or wetlands impacts and the permittee was found to be operating in accordance to its permit provisions.

While natural gas is not yet running through the pipeline, the construction has led to at least one instance of pollution. In October, a pool of drilling mud was detected in a river near Valdosta, Georgia, while an underwater shaft was being drilled for the pipeline. Drilling mud was found on the riverbed in about two feet of water. A Sabal Trail Transmission spokeswoman said both Georgia and federal officials “are satisfied that the work and containment is appropriate.”

Credit Spectra Energy
Spectra Energy's pipelines in the Southeast U.S.

Construction of the natural gas line could be done by May. Then, if a gas leak were to happen - it would likely be shut down quickly, according to Nicholas Albergo, an environmental engineering professor at the University of South Florida.

"They have automatic shutoffs, they've got an automatic system that alerts their baselines of an issue, so that while I appreciate the possibility that there could be a leak," he said, "with that kind of data-acquisition system that's measuring pipe flow and pressure amongst multiple points along the pipeline, it won't be there for long."

Albergo said a greater hazard could be when pressurized water is sent through a pipeline to test for leaks. That water has to be released - somewhere, he said.

"If you're just dumping it where the pipe is, you're in essence putting a tremendous amount of weight into the soil of that area," he said. "And our problem with karst is we've got these areas of cavities, and some of them have got these very thin roofs, and when you put a bunch of weight, you end up having a collapse, which is how sinkholes form."

Albergo said on balance, there already are thousands of miles of pipelines in Florida, with a mostly clean record.

"We've got interstate transmission pipelines that have operated in karst-sensitive areas all over the place. And there just isn't - I couldn't find a significant karst-related incident in Florida at all."

Still, that's of little comfort for people like Koon, who has the pipeline snaking through his land in Levy County.

Credit Steve Newborn/WUSF News
Robin Koon

Koon said he first started meeting with pipeline officials about the construction in 2013. He said they agreed to veer away from the wetlands next to his home, but that that never happened.

"I said, because the property's not for sale - I've got my family's ashes out there," he said. "They knew it from the very beginning. And later on, they stated to me they never knew about it. They never knew I had family ashes out here. So I'm going 'that's kind of ridiculous.' "

He said he has five family members whose remains are scattered directly in the path of the pipeline. This is supposed to be a burial ground for his band, the North Central Florida Waccasassa Tribe of Seminoles. They're not connected with the federally-recognized Seminole Tribe.

"I got my stepfather, a World War II veteran, Anthony," said Koon. "And I've got my dad - he was the first ashes I spread out here. He fought in Korea. After that, it as my brother-in-law, and that's where they took 10 feet of his. And my brother - he's retired Air Force. He served over in the Persian Gulf. And my stepson - they ran through five feet, about five feet of his ashes."

Koon said the pipeline company tried to make amends.

"So, the other offer they gave me was, once they cleared it out, they would save the top two inches of soil for me," he said. "Well, I gave them the same option - give me a backhoe, and a bulldozer, put it by your loved one and let's dig them up with a bulldozer and put it back in there, and I'll save you the top two inches. They thought that was ridiculous. I said, yeah, my feelings exactly."

Opposition to the pipeline has come from people like Laura Catlow,  a fellow member of the local Seminole tribe.

Catlow has been active in her hometown of Bronson, going door-to-door with fliers. She says some people next to the pipeline have no idea what it is. She was greeted with "a lot of shrugged shoulders and Oh, well, what can we do?"

Credit Steve Newborn/WUSF News
Laura Catlow

"She did not know what it was - and it's running 10 feet from her house," Catlow said of one of her neighbors. "She thought it was a water line. So when we broke the news to her, as you can imagine, she turned white as a ghost and was in shock - and immediately started calling her friends and neighbors."

"So we are relying on outside forces," she said. "We're relying on Standing Rock people. We're relying on environmentalists. And just folks who are able to travel and come and stand, do observations or block trucks, or whatever action they are willing to take."

Catlow, whose long black hair points to her native American heritage, vowed to fight 'til the end. She says a "pipeline stopped anywhere is a pipeline stopped everywhere."

"We're not ready to give up until that thing is turned on," she said.

As for Koon, he said he tossed the company's offer of $1,400 to buy the right of way, into the trash. That's a lot of money for a school bus driver. In the end, the construction company used eminent domain to take the land anyway.

"So this pipeline, and eminent domain - for a private company profit - is wiping my whole future out now," he said. "My whole history out now. It's going to be gone."

For more information about the law, here's a link to the cases of eminent domain.

And here's a story in the Orlando Sentinel about eminent domain land seizures in the pipeline's path in Osceola County.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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