The Sabal Trail Pipeline: A Sinking Feeling
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
View map full screen | How FracTracker maps work
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 pipeline noise pollution at the Santa Fe River (Nov. 25, 2016).
Credit: Merrillee on Vimeo.
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
It’s critical that drilling professionals are utilizing safe and efficient strategies during their drilling process in order to avoid any more pipeline disasters.
We as users of water must gather together to save our lives.
Excuse me – this is a natural gas pipeline, correct? And gas is lighter than air. How do you explain water contamination? If, God forbid,there is a leak, gas flows UP not down into the aquifer layer. I’ve lived near a pipeline and watched it constructed. It was maybe 8 to 10 feet down; how deep is the aquifer? No chance for contamination.
Florida terrain is fragile. It is not like other parts of the US. The fact that it is in an area of sink holes makes it very disturbing.
John, this area is really fragile. The map doesn’t show even half of the sinks near the pipeline. The land is swiss cheese. They really didn’t even want to know all of the locations of the sinks when they initially poked around.
I’m not particularly in favor of risking our environment to generate power, but i get the feeling some folks are “activated” by anything labeled an”environmentalist” cause… To the point they go all in without reading anything but “environmentalist”propoganda pieces.
This project was brought to my attention at a protest by a group of folks who were against “big oil”… And this is a natural gas pipeline…. Obviously the environmental implications are different.
As always… If you wish to cease the supply of something, you stop demanding it. If you do not like a company, boycott.
If you are going to voice your opinion on the public stage… At least get the basic facts straight, be prepared to answer questions, and act in a civil manner.
How many disastrous pipe line breaks & toxic release into our waters & unique fragile ecosystem will it take to realize that we need to move onto alternative safe environment friendly energy options? ?. I recall words from a song” there’s only so much oil in the ground”. Do you think this oil in the ground might play an important part to the earths existence? We just keep raping the earth & there will be a point of no healing which will be our own demise. I don’t think we can just move to another planet after we trash this one. Greed is the root of all evil. My time on this planet is more then 50% over. I feel concern for my children & my grandchildren. I fear what their world will be like.?. We need to stand strong in our beliefs & keep our voices heard. We need to keep fighting the good fight.????????????????????☠️???
agree! we must fight for our children and grandchildren’s future!
So.. Renewables. Solar panels, made largely in China, and creating toxic waste dumps that you cannot begin to regulate.Wind turbines using magnets made from rare earth materials, mined in China, and which kill bats, raptors and migratory birds. Is this the legacy you want for your children? Have YOU converted to all renewables? That is, you generate all your own electricity off the grid? You use no food, clothing, or any other goods made elsewhere and trucked (using fossil fuels) to your home? You ride bicycles or walk? If not, than you are a hypocrite, no better than the fools in Hollywood who pontificate on the evils of fossil fuels while gadding about in private jets.
Equating the pollution of solar panels with the pollution of oil/gas?? Get some help John.
People, even though John Galt’s argument is obviously absurd, that cutting your pollution radically is meaningless if you still pollute at all, it is true there is much hypocrisy out there. I’ve lived without a car for the last 25 years. You have to change your lifestyle to do it but it can be done. Overpopulation is fueling all these environmental ills. I have refrained from bringing children into this troubled situation. If enough others would follow suit, we could depopulate to a proper balance with the rest of the web of life. Yet the insane overpopulation continues. I have made four attempts to organize a community in the country, where we could live a very clean, healthy, and easy life, while preserving Nature, yet others would not join me. Still, we all have the power to make changes in our lives that require no one else’s permission (yes even crazed Ayn Rand reading types like John Galt).
This is a natural gas pipeline…