When Jeb and Bob Bell’s mother was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1985, she purchased 100 acres of land in Mitchell County, Georgia, to grow timber on. She wanted her sons taken care of if she didn’t make it, and for them to have something they could pass on to their own children.
She survived the cancer, but a new threat to the land has emerged. Today, private companies want to build a natural gas pipeline through the Bell's land to run south into neighboring Florida.
“In 2014 we received a letter saying they were interested in coming down through here and putting in the pipeline,” said Jeb Bell, a resource manager at Georgia State Parks. “I sent them a letter telling them to stay off my land. I did not want them on my land. Who in their right mind would want a 36-inch pipeline three feet under the ground in proximity of their house?”
The Bells are just one of many families in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida who are being impacted by the Sabal Trail Transmission, a $3 billion project with the goal of beginning service by May 1, 2017. The 515-mile pipeline would help power Florida’s growing energy demand—more than 60% of the Sunshine State’s utilities are reliant on gas.
Behind the project are Spectra Energy Corp, NextEra Energy, Inc., and Duke Energy; the natural gas will be provided to Florida Power and Light, owned by NextEra and Duke.
Sabal Trail is one of a number of controversial pipeline projects under construction across the country. In North Dakota, a coalition of Native American tribes are fighting to stop a 1,170-mile oil pipeline that would run through sacred grounds and near important water sources.
Another contested oil pipeline across the Midwest was recently canceled due to low oil prices after being significantly delayed by environmentalists and Native American tribes.
In a letter written to the Federal Environmental Regulation Commission by four Georgia Democratic congressmen last October, the officials expressed concerns over "serious environmental justice issues" with Sabal Trail, as well as possible health problems that residents in its vicinity could encounter:
Sabal Trail’s proposed pipeline and compressor station will further burden an already overburdened and disadvantaged African-American community in this area. Sabal Trail’s proposed route will go through Albany and Dougherty County and will run through low-income African-American neighborhoods. The proposed industrial compressor station facility would sit right in the middle of an African-American residential neighborhood comprised of two large subdivisions, a mobile home park, schools, recreational facilities, and the 5,000-plus member Mount Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation.
For the environmental justice community, the location of heavy industry near low-income and minority neighborhoods is nothing new.
In March, the Georgia House of Representatives voted 128-34 against a bill that would have given the pipeline project power to seize property.
“This does not serve our citizens,” Republican Rep. Regina Quick told the Georgia Report, a news outlet covering Georgia politics. “I will not be complicit in this scheme for the federal government or anyone else.”
To add to the controversy, Florida Gov. Rick Scott owned $53,000 in Spectra Energy stock in 2013, the same year he signed into law two bills designed to speed up permitting for the Sabal Trail Transmission, according to The Miami Herald. While the stock was part of a blind trust, Florida’s ethics laws historically prohibit public officials from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation.
“I’m outraged and disheartened by this news. I feel blindsided,” said Beth Gordon, who helped create the anti-Sabal Trail pipeline group SpectraBusters. “The governor’s interest is in getting these companies the permits they need and he’s not interested in the environment.”
SpectraBusters and the Sierra Club have both been heavily involved in fighting the pipeline.
“We’re concerned if there were any sort of environmental damages, it would impact our water supply,” said Merrilee Malwitz-Jipson, the organizing representative for the Sierra Club, who lives in Fort White, FL. “This is a gas highway.”
In an example of the highway-nature of the project, the companies behind the pipeline received permission to relocate gopher tortoises that live along its proposed route. Malwitz-Hipson also fears that more damage would be done than is presented in the Environmental Impact Statement because it does not include sinkholes. The Sierra Club and other groups took elected officials on a site visit to the Suwannee River State Park, where sinkholes already exist and would be exacerbated should there be construction of the pipeline.
“We’re concerned about any collapsing that would affect Florida's springs where this pipeline is,” she said, adding something as simple as heavy rain can worsen a sinkhole. “It’s our life blood…If there were any sort of failure, it would definitely have an impact on most of Florida.”
According to the Sabal Trail project’s website, the pipeline will not contaminate drinking water, low-emission turbines will be used, and sound will be kept according to regulations. It also says that landowners will be paid fair market rates for their property. Although Georgia and Alabama will not benefit from the gas, the site says residents in those states will benefit from jobs.
But Malwitz-Jipson and other critics are not convinced, in large part due to the troubles of previous projects by Spectra Energy.
Spectra says on its website that its incident rate is half that of the industry average. According to the Florida Bulldog, a public interest investigative news outlet, Spectra Energy has recorded 25 incidents causing $12 million in damage over the last decade. Most recently, in April, a Pennsylvania man was injured after one of the company’s pipelines exploded due to corrosion.
“They have a terrible track record,” Malwitz-Jipson said. “They’re notorious for having problems with their pipelines.”
The death knell for the fight against the pipeline came when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted the Sabal Trail Transmission a certificate of public convenience and necessity in April. This means the pipeline has the right to eminent domain, a right usually reserved for government projects. The decision is legal thanks to a 2005 Supreme Court decision.
“People don't take lightly to private companies being given eminent domain power, and they certainly don’t take lightly to a Texas company condemning land in Georgia when there’s no benefit for anybody in Georgia,” said Mark Woodall, the legislative chairman of Sierra Club Georgia.
Sabal Trail Transmission has filed 160 eminent domain lawsuits, including one against the Bell brothers. They countersued on the grounds of trespassing when men were found surveying their land, but the Bells lost. After more back and forth in settlements, the conglomerate sued the Bells for $47,000 in court fees.
“This is a multi-billion-dollar company. They don’t need the money. They probably spend $47,000 on coffee or copy paper,” Bell said. “It was about making an example so they can hang this over mine and my brother’s head and anybody else in the future, anywhere in the country.”
Bell isn’t sure how he and his brother are going to pay for it. They’ve considered putting up a bond or cashing out their life savings, but in the meantime they’re hoping to raise funds through GoFundMe.
Spectra Energy Corp did not respond to requests for comment. A representative from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is taking part in construction, said it could not comment on ongoing litigation.
The Bells are far from the the only ones being impacted by the project. Residents in Albany, GA, are fighting to have a compressor station moved farther from their homes to avoid noise pollution. Even media mogul Ted Turner and former Sen. Bob Graham’s properties are in at risk of being impacted.
With construction set to start in the spring, the Sierra Club and other opposition groups are scrambling to at least delay the start date or have the route altered.
“We’re going to keep fighting until it’s over, but we’re kind of in the ninth inning here,” Woodall said. “The key thing is these Florida utilities, we’re suffering due to their greed, basically their refusal to do what’s right for the environment and for their ratepayers.”
In late August, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to avoid increasing the real estate tax for residential solar panel installers by a huge margin of 74% to 27%. While this isn't a tax break per say, it does mean that when someone installs home solar panels in the Sunshine State, it won't add to the cost of their property taxes.
Christiana Lilly is a full-time freelance journalist based out of South Florida, covering the gamut in content from national politics, LGBT news, Florida’s restaurant and bar scene, to Miami society.