The Sabal Trail Pipeline is up and running, pumping natural gas some 515 miles from Alabama to Central Florida. But environmental concerns and legal challenges remain.
Environmentalists and local residents have been protesting the Sabal Trail pipeline for months, staging rallies in cities across the state and near construction sites.
“One planet! One river! One chance!” chanted demonstrators near the Sante Fe River.
The underground pipeline spans twelve Florida counties, from Madison to Osceola. It runs underneath the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Withlacoochee Rivers, and nearby springs. Suwannee Riverkeeper John Quarterman is worried about how the structure could affect the state’s waterways.
“The pipeline crosses directly through the springs heartland of Florida. It passes directly through the most vulnerable recharge area of the Floridan aquifer,” Quarterman said.
That’s the source of fresh drinking water for some 10 million people. Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson is with the Sierra Club of Florida. She’s worried drilling mud and runoff from the construction of the 48 inch pipe could be seeping into the aquifer.
“There was mud being discharged in places they shouldn’t have been discharging. There was water being placed, as a result of hydrostatic testing, being placed in areas in shouldn’t have been placed,” she said.
Malwitz-Jipson says area residents are reporting the pipeline is causing small sinkholes to open up.
“And so that’s been a huge concern of ours from day one,” she said.
She alleges the pipeline developers are filling in the holes, and failing to report them. Representatives of the Sabal Trail Transmission didn’t respond to a request for comment before this story’s deadline.
University of South Florida geologist Philip Van Beynen says it’s possible the sinkholes are related to the pipeline.
“One of the reasons that sinkholes occur is because water is removed from the rock and that removes some of the support that’s holding up the ceiling of the big holes, the voids, you have in the limestone,” Van Beynen said. “Sometimes construction equipment can lead to some of the collapse of those voids in the ground, causing some of those sinkholes, so that’s definitely possible.”
But he doesn’t expect the pipeline to have a dramatic impact on the environment.
“As far as I know I wouldn’t be as worried about the natural gas pipeline providing pollution. I think an oil pipeline would be much more concerning,” he said.
He says a greater risk to fresh drinking water sits in many Floridians’ yards.
“People’s septic tanks probably do a lot more damage to our environment, especially the Floridan aquifer, than a gas pipeline would. Because people’s effluent from their homes can leak through the porous limestone,” Van Beynen said.
But John Quarterman says environmentalists and residents will continue monitoring the project.
“We’re going to be watching Sabal Trail like a hawk to see when there are further frack-outs or sinkholes or leaks or explosions,” Quarterman said.
The Sierra Club challenged the federal permit for Sabal Trail last year, and they’re still waiting for a decision. But with the pipeline up and running, environmentalists are redirecting their focus. The Waterkeeper Alliance is now calling on Congress to overhaul the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate fossil fuel projects. Like a number of government agencies, FERC is waiting for the approval of Trump Administration nominees, before it’s able to make major decisions.