Local opposition to natural gas pipeline growing

ALBANY — Dougherty County landowners who’ve been contacted by representatives of a group planning the 465-mile Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline projected to run underneath their property say they’re not convinced by assurances that the $3 billion project is safe.

And they’re preparing to challenge the pipeline even as project surveyors seek access to their land.

“This is not just a threat to my land, to our region’s water, to the environment and to my family’s safety,” one property owner said. “It’s a threat to what Albany is. This is a black nebula that threatens every person in this region.”

Houston-based Spectra Energy announced plans for the Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline, a joint project with Juno Beach, Fla.’s NextEra Energy Inc. and Florida Power & Light, in July. The project is expected to initiate in central Alabama’s Tallapoosa County and terminate in central Florida’s Osceola County. The 465-mile on-shore path of the pipeline, which will have the capacity to pump 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, includes 55 miles in Alabama, 196 in Georgia and 214 in Florida.

The route proposed for the project would come through a large swath of Dougherty County.

Several local residents contacted by the company in an effort to gain access to their land flatly say they don’t want the pipeline, but Andrea Grover, a spokesperson for the Sabal Trail project, said Friday opposition to the project is premature.

“We are very early in the vetting process,” Grover said. “We are gathering information about a potential corridor (through Georgia), and the only way we’ll learn about that corridor is by listening to the landowners. We’ve done our homework to get to this point, completed tabletop studies, but the way we can determine the least impactive route is by listening to the landowners.”

Some of those landowners, though, aren’t interested in talking with project officials. Roselyn Beasley Bridges, who owns property near the point where Mitchell, Worth, Colquitt and Dougherty counties share boundaries, said she’s tried to make that point clear to officials seeking permission to survey her land.

“My family has been on this land for seven generations,” Bridges said. “My mom and dad taught us that we are the caretakers of our land, and I feel if we don’t protect our land — protect our water and our ecosystem — we’re going to lose it. Every person in this region who turns on a faucet and gets a glass of pure, clear drinking water should thank God.

“And that, more than anything, is what I feel is at stake here.”

Bridges said she and other landowners who’ve been contacted by Sabal Trail representatives hear an undertone of threat in their efforts to gain access to survey a 600-foot corridor of land in the pipeline’s proposed route.

“When I told one of them I wasn’t interested in a pipeline going on my land, the man said, ‘But you haven’t even heard how much we’re willing to pay you,’” Bridges said. “When I told him that their project would deplete the fair market value of my property and that there were more important things involved in this than money, he just laughed at me.”

Other residents contacted by Sable Trail representatives said they’ve been told “There’s nothing you can do to stop this,” and some have said they felt “bullied” by the representatives’ “hard-sell” approach.

“We have a strong grasp of the people we have out in the field talking with residents,” Grover said. “We hand-picked them, and we provided extensive training. If there were any incidents like the ones you’ve described, they would be addressed.”

Sabal Trail Transmission Right-of-Way Manager Kitty Maidens sent one local resident a letter dated Aug. 24 seeking authorization to conduct civil, environmental and cultural surveys on that person’s land. The final paragraph of the letter says, “We hope you understand that the planned near-term activities must be conducted without delay in order to meet our schedule requirements and that our preference is to cooperate with you by requesting permission for access. However, if you have not granted such permission to Sabal Trail by Septemeber 3rd, you should be aware that Sabal Trail may enter your property as provided for under Georgia statute O.C.G.A. 22-3-88, to perform the necessary survey activities.”

Contacted about the language of Maidens’ letter, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said he would look into the matter further. “Like the rest of the citizenry, I’m aware that the pipeline is supposed to come through Georgia and part of Dougherty County,” Sinyard said. “I haven’t seen the mapping, though, and I’m not sure where it will go. I feel very strongly that if and when the pipeline goes through Dougherty County, the company will make sure the minimum number of citizens are affected.

“Listening to what you read me, I don’t appreciate any kind of tone threatening our citizens.”

Sinyard later said he’d talked with Sabal Trail officials and understood there had been other contacts made with citizens who were sent the letter invoking the state’s eminent domain law, and both Grover and fellow spokesperson Randy Lewis said that was in fact true.

“We started contacting landowners as early as June,” Grover said. “Our culture is to get out early and make contact as quickly as we can. We did so shortly after the awarding of this contract. That letter that you read from is probably a third or fourth letter, plus our agents have been out the last two or three months knocking on doors, meeting face-to-face with landowners.”

Added Lewis: “A lot of people don’t realize that surveyors have the right, by law, to survey on privately owned land. We understand someone getting the hair on the back of their neck up about their property, but what we are trying to do now is gain information.”

Dougherty Sheriff Kevin Sproul said he’s not received any complaints from landowners about the efforts of Sabal Trail representatives, but he confirmed that the company does have the right to survey privately-owned land, with or without permission, under Georgia law.

“I researched the section of the Code mentioned in the letter, and it looks like it’s pretty much black and white,” Sproul said. “Under Georgia’s eminent domain law, the right to exercise such power is granted. Landowners’ hands are pretty much tied.

“I would hope that our folks would, in the spirit of cooperation, allow this surveying to go on with no trouble.”

Asked what his office’s response would be if landowners refused access and ordered surveyors off their land, Sproul said, “I would hope it wouldn’t come to that.”

One local official said that while any surveyor who was not granted access to private property had the right to enter the property, he would expect some kind of court order or even law enforcement presence to assure safety.

“You might have the law on your side, but it would be foolish to challenge someone who feels he or she is protecting their property,” the official said.

Sabal Trail officials have sold the pipeline proposal in Georgia by touting economic development and job opportunities. Bridges, for one, refutes such claims.

“They tell us this will bring jobs to Georgia and to our area,” she said. “But the only jobs here will be work on the pipeline. They’ll bring in people who’ll be here a short while, and then they’ll be gone. The impact on our community will be very minimal.”

Grover said there would be permanent jobs in Georgia, but she admitted that they would be minimal in number, at least during the early phase of the project.

“I started my professional career in the Albany/Americus area,” Lewis said. “And I know economic development is a challenge in that part of the state. This is going to be an ‘open pipeline,’ which mean that over time there is the potential for huge economic growth related to the project.

“We had it happen in Maine, where two factories reopened and tremendous economic development grew around this inexpensive, clean energy source.”

The local individuals challenging the Sabal Trail pipeline are only loosely organized currently, although as more of them share their experiences with project representatives, there appears to be a growing call to unite in their efforts.

“We understand that this pipeline is going to go through,” one said. “When there’s that much money at stake, it’s going to happen. But we want them to take a closer look at their pipeline route and find a way to impact fewer people. The approach needs to be more rural, not urban.”

But that argument, an official warned, poses another problem: “When you do that, you’re just putting your concerns on someone else.”