Not one hand raised among the dozens in the room when a county commissioner asked who came to support the proposed Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline which would run through three states and dissect Suwannee County if approved.
Tuesday evening, every parking space at the county’s judicial annex building was full as O’Brien residents, people from Live Oak and activists and experts from as far as New Orleans gathered at the county commission meeting to voice their opposition to the project.
The commission was voting on a measure to send a letter to Sabal Trail Transmission, a partnership between Spectra Energy, Duke Energy and NextEra Energy, asking it to reconsider a controversial compressor station for the pipeline it plans to place in O’Brien.
County Commission Chairman Jason Bashaw read a letter Sabal Trail’s attorneys sent that cites case law and the legalities of the station.
Johanna de Graffenreid, a New Orleans organizer from the Gulf Restoration Network environmental group and an environmental policy specialist, spoke to the commission about several topics related to Sabal Trail.
“I want to raise with y’all some serious concerns,” said Graffenreid. “It has serious impacts on the health of the residents here.”
She highlighted some of those concerns, such as some of the sensitive geological features in Florida.
Sabal Trail also hasn’t provided any evidence for its assurances regarding the pipeline’s environmental impact, she said. Some of the studies it submitted were as old as 1986, she added.
“Why is it this county is being deemed a sacrifice zone for this pipeline and this compressor station without any real analysis?” Graffenreid asked.
The compressor stations, such as the one in O’Brien, for instance, could damage a vulnerable geological layer with its constant vibrations, she said.
When the commissioners asked if they had the power to do anything, there was a discussion about the possibility of using county zoning laws to move the station.
“You have total jurisdiction,” Graffenreid told Bashaw after he asked what actions the county could take other than sending the letter. “You do have control over zoning.”
She also recommended the public demand more information through requesting documents about the project from relevant government agencies by using the Freedom of Information Act, known as a FOIA request.
Before Graffenreid spoke, Dave Shields, from O’Brien, was the first among numerous people to give citizen input at the meeting as he thanked the commission for bringing the resolution on the issue forward.
“I very much appreciate how quickly you guys have moved on this,” Shields said.
Shields has been vocal at previous meetings about the compressor station he says would be close to his home. It would be unlikely to stop the pipeline from running through the county, he said, but he also doesn’t want to transfer the problem to other people.
“I certainly don’t want to give this issue to someone else,” he said.
Another resident, Dana Stevens, spoke out, saying he received a letter from Sabal Trail the day before the meeting threatening to take him to federal court unless he settles with the company regarding his land.
Stevens said he believes he is the closest or second closest resident to the station, but before the letter was widely ignored throughout the process.
“This is who we’re dealing with?” he asked. “I’m gonna fight it as long as I can.”
Spectra Energy, based in Houston, Texas, would operate the pipeline. It would run from Alabama through Georgia and Florida to a compressor station in Osceola County providing energy for Florida Power & Light.
It could provide over 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in the Southeastern market, according to the environmental impact study from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The project would need to have a permit from both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and FERC. FERC had previously released an environmental impact study stating the risk to the environment was not significant.
Debra Johnson, from the WWALS Watershed Coalition, which is engaged in a legal dispute with Sabal Trail to prevent it from getting a state permit, brought up the fact that Spectra Energy has a record of violating environmental safety laws and regulations, she said.
“Spectra Energy has the worst history of violations with the EPA ever,” she said, citing 164 violations.
It uses PCB on its pipelines, a material banned in the 70s, she said, which has spread pollution through 15 states.
Several others also took the microphone to discuss their personal experiences regarding the project, environmental or safety concerns and other issues.
Suwannee County resident Lori McCraney read a memo from the Suwannee River Water Management District and talked about the thickness of the steel being used in the local segment of the proposed pipeline. Because Suwannee County is a rural area, the steel is less thick than it is in other locales, she said, posing a safety risk for county residents.
“Their lives are less valued simply because there are less of them,” McCraney said.
The county commissioners unanimously passed the resolution to send the letter before allowing several other out-of-county attendees at the meeting to speak.
John Quarterman, president of WWALS, was one of them. Despite what Sabal Trail wants people to believe, he said, the battle is not over. For instance, the project still needs to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Why should money from Houston get to take our land and pollute our waters?” Quarterman asked in a phone interview. “Let’s repel the invasion.”
Sabal Trail responds to critics
Sabal Trail representatives contacted the Suwannee Democrat the day after the meting where the compressor station and the pipeline in general were discussed.
Andrea Grover, a spokesperson for Sabal Trail Transmission member Spectra Energy, gave a response to the concerns local residents and out-of-county opponents have regarding the Sabal Trail project.
“We did not have the opportunity to attend the meeting (Tuesday night),” Grover said. “We really work with every landowner to ensure that issues are identified to resolve any questions or concerns.”
Sabal Trail has worked with landowners on their properties to address their needs, she added.
The project doesn’t infringe on anybody’s property rights, she said, because they are only easements for the pipeline to pass through underground. Once it is finished and operational, they can resume normal use of the property, she added.
Some landowners at the meeting mentioned the risk of the project causing sinkholes.
There’s a mitigation plan available on the Sabal Trail website that details the efforts that have been taken to avoid sensitive areas, Grover said. Areas most vulnerable to sinkhole formation, for instance, are avoided.
The studies Sabal Trail submitted to regulatory agencies were reviewed by internal experts and by regulatory agencies, Grover said, in response to criticism from WWALS Watershed Coalition about the company lacking peer-reviewed evidence to support its claims.
There are qualified experts in the regulatory bodies capable of reviewing a study, said University of Florida geologist David Foster, but that is not the same as peer review.
“It’s a form of review,” he said, but it’s not what we would call formal scientific review.”
Peer review, in the scientific community, means submitting a study to a nationally or internationally recognized journal for the science editor to send to experts around the world, who would then look at the results, the methodology and the interpretations of the facts and send an analysis of the study back to the journal. If the editor determines it is of sufficient quality, it will be published in the journal.
The benefit is that the experts in a peer review have no relationship to the study or the entity that conducted it, Foster said.
Grover agreed that Sabal Trail’s studies weren’t technically peer-reviewed, but said they were still looked at by experts in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We adhere to all the guidelines,” she said.
As far as air pollution from the compressor station in O’Brien, Sabal Trail’s studies found it would only account for .29 percent of Suwannee County’s total emissions, Grover said. However, she wasn’t sure which specific kinds of emissions that research looked at and included in the figure.
The company goes through several permitting processes that ensure the pipeline and its compressor stations are safe, she added.
Sabal Trail representatives were not able to attend the last meeting because the company didn’t learn about it until the following day, Grover said. However, if the business was made aware of a public meeting beforehand that would involve the pipeline, it would try to send people to participate in-person, she added.
“We’d be happy to come provide information,” Grover said.