Opponents of a proposed natural gas pipeline in North Florida are asking Florida regulators to reject the project, citing both dangers to the environment and a “conflict of interest” by the regulators’ boss, Gov. Rick Scott.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced in July its intention to award a crucial environmental permit and rights to drill beneath riverbeds that would allow Houston-based Spectra Energy to construct the controversial, $3 billion Sabal Trail Transmission.
State records show Spectra Energy’s investors have included Scott.
On Aug. 28, the nonprofit WWALs Watershed Coalition, an affiliate of the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed an amended petition asking the DEP to deny the permit or “at the very least” reroute the underground pipeline to avoid “the sensitive karst terrain that underlies north central Florida … especially drilling under the Withlacoochee, Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers.”
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“The risk is not just to these waters … it is to the entire state of Florida whose growing population relies on the Floridan aquifer for much of its drinking water,” says the 34-page petition filed by WWALs president John S. Quarterman. The Floridan aquifer underlies all of Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Spectra Energy spokeswoman Andrea Grover, however, noted that DEP’s notice of intent to issue the permit followed nearly a year of discussions and review. “The permit requires full mitigation of all wetland impacts and protects water quality,” she said.
If accepted as legally sufficient by DEP, the petition would put the brakes on the department’s plans to issue the permit and trigger an administrative hearing before any permit could be awarded. A DEP spokeswoman said last week that the department’s lawyers are reviewing the petition.
The 474-mile Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners and Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy. It is intended to supply fracked natural gas to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants across the state, including Port Everglades.
Sabal Trail is to run across Alabama and through southern Georgia and then enter northern Florida. The Florida leg, 257 miles long, will push south through a dozen counties to a hub in Central Florida south of Orlando. Along the way, the pipeline would be installed beneath several rivers.
In the July 10 notice of intent, DEP Central District Director Jeff Prather wrote that Sabal Trail had provided DEP with “reasonable assurance” that pipeline construction would comply with state laws and rules. Likewise, Prather wrote, the department determined that “construction and operation” of the Sabal Trail pipeline would not violate state water quality standards.
“The applicant has also demonstrated that the construction … is clearly in the public interest,” Prather said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the Sabal Trail proposal and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC’s decision could come as early as November.
The WWALs petition argues that the project is “clearly not in the public interest of the citizens of Hamilton and Suwannee counties who will be affected … without any benefit whatsoever.”
The petition describes the lands in North Florida along Sabal Trail’s proposed route as a rich habitat for native wildlife — including threatened species like the gopher tortoise and the eastern indigo snake.
The area is honeycombed with sinkholes and sensitive underground springs and caverns at special risk from the proposed, 36-inch natural gas pipeline. Forested lands will be cleared and wetlands filled to make way for the pipeline, substantially reducing wildlife habitat, a plan that is “not acceptable,” the petition says.
Drilling through the area’s karst terrain, formed by the gradual erosion of Florida’s limestone or dolomite rocks, could cause new sinkholes that could cause pipeline failure, property damage or even human injury, the petition says.
More ominously, the petition says the proposed use of horizontal directional drilling to bore through karst limestone in order to lay underground pipe at river crossings increases the risk of “frac-outs” that happen when a drill bores into an underground spring. The result can be a new sinkhole “resulting in potentially catastrophic effects on spring and river flows and water quality in both rivers and private wells.”
MORE STUDY NEEDED?
The petition calls for more study before such drilling “destroys underground caverns and spring conduits that may cause the extinction” of exotic species.
Further, the petition cited the possibility of a pipeline failure and an explosion that would damage the underground karst terrain and springs and kill designated or threatened species like the alligator snapping turtle, American alligator and Suwannee cooter turtle.
The petition points out that a Spectra Energy pipeline exploded beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. It goes on to note that Spectra has been repeatedly fined by federal regulators in the U.S. and Canada for “failing to properly maintain and repair their pipelines and for failing to clean up contamination” when their pipelines leaked.
“Why is Florida DEP trusting this company with our valuable natural resources?” the petition asks.
Spectra Energy presents a different picture.
“Our safety record is better than the industry average,” spokeswoman Andrea Grover said. “Our reportable incidents were approximately half the rate of the industry average during the past five years.”
During the same period, Grover said, Spectra Energy operated about 4 percent of the nation’s natural gas transmission pipelines, yet received only 2 percent of the enforcement actions initiated by U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection serves as staff to the Board of Trustees of the Florida Internal Improvement Fund, which owns the submerged lands beneath the rivers where Spectra Energy wants to run the pipeline. The DEP is the delegated decision-making authority to issue an easement to allow construction under the Florida Administrative Code.
The WWALS petition says Scott, in his role as a member of the fund’s board of trustees, has a “conflict of interest” due to his “financial interests in Spectra Energy, the parent company of Sabal Trail Transmissions, as well as in Williams Company, the owner of the Transco pipeline from which Sabal Trail plans to get its gas.
“The governor and other public officials are prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies,” the petition says.
In response, Scott’s office issued a statement saying the public is protected from conflicts of interests because his assets are in a blind trust “under the control of an independent financial professional. As such, the governor has no knowledge of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust.”
As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, the blind trust has not prevented public disclosure of Scott’s personal stock holdings. On June 25, for example, Scott and the trust reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Scott had sold 122,653 shares of Argan earlier that month for $4.87 million. Argan’s Gemma Power Systems subsidiary builds and operates power plants in Florida and elsewhere.
Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible.