Sabal Trail Pipeline construction and protests continue

Company says pipeline will 'bring clean natural gas' to Florida

Cities the Sabal Trail Pipeline runs through
Cities the Sabal Trail Pipeline runs through

ORLANDO, Fla. – Tensions over the 515-mile Sabal Trail Pipeline recently came to a tipping point for some Floridians who are against the project to bring natural gas to the state.

Two protesters were arrested last week after deputies said they physically inserted themselves inside the 3-foot-wide pipe in Marion County. A man was shot and killed Sunday by Florida Highway Patrol troopers after he was shooting a "high-powered rifle" at the pipeline.

The incidents are one of many protests that took place before construction even began on the pipeline early last year.

News 6 looked at the opposition to the pipeline and compared it to what benefits energy groups say the project will bring to Florida.

The pipeline is being constructed by Sabal Trail Transmissions LLC, which is a joint project by Duke Energy, Spectra Energy and NextEra Inc, which owns Florida Power and Light Co.

Spectra Energy was purchased Monday by the Canadian company Enbridge, Inc, which owns 27 percent of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Environmental impacts

Florida’s weather and natural resources are part of what draws millions of tourists to visit the Sunshine State each year but residents also rely on the state's natural resources for drinking water.

In Central Florida, the pipeline will run through part of Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve in the Four Corners area in Polk, Lake, Sumter and Pasco counties.

The northern edge of the 560,000-acre Green Swamp, is one of three designated areas of critical state concern in the state. The 1974 designation increased development regulations for the area that are critical to Florida’s water resources. The swamp is the source of the Floridan aquifer, from which 60 percent of the state gets its drinking water, according to the Sierra Club.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in August approved the permit to build through the swamp and other areas.

"How did this corporation get permission to go through this corridor?" asked Merrillee Maltwitz-Jipson, an organizing representative for the Sierra Club Florida said.

The Sierra Club was among five environmental groups that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August for issuing the three permits, but the suit was dismissed.

The Sabal Trial map shows the pipeline cuts through conservation areas, going under rivers and near natural springs. At Suwannee River State Park, the pipeline will be buried under the river.

The pipeline will cross more 700 bodies of water in Florida, according to maps of the pipeline.

Sabal received permits from the South Florida Water Management District for draining--which is also known as dewatering-- hundreds of acres of swamp water, including 471 acres on the Walt Disney property known as Reed Creek District, to put in the pipeline.

Maltwitz-Jipson said the action of draining these wetlands will permanently damage ecosystems. 

Natural Gas Act gives eminent domain to Sabal Trail

Landowners in the path of the pipeline have been forced through legal injunctions to hand over their property to the natural gas project.

In February 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, approved the use of $3 billion of Florida Power and Light taxpayer money to build the 515-mile pipeline.

Officials with FERC approved the project after saying any harm it might present to the environment had been properly minimized.

Three months later the FERC awarded Sabal Trail Transmissions LLC the certificate to eminent domain under the Natural Gas Act, allowing them to buy private properties from homeowners for public or government use.

Some Florida landowners have lost their rights to their land because of the eminent domain and some will have no choice but to live in an active construction zone.

Orlando attorney Nick Dancaescu is representing about 41 property owners in the area through which the pipeline directly runs through. Around the state, there are about seven attorneys representing about 60 to 70 landowners.

Only a handful of landowners have settled with Sabal to be compensated for the economic impact to land, Dancaescu said.

Much of the land has more than just property value to the owners, Dancaescu said. Most of it is agricultural homesteads that owners planned to pass on to family ad some of it contains multifamily homes.

Homeowners who tried to fight the pipeline were defeated by the federal ruling of eminent domain, and now the discussion is determining the fare amount of money the people are owed.

Because the cases are in federal court and not state court things are more complicated.

"Florida has a lot of protections to make sure homeowners don't get steamrolled," he said. "This doesn't happen typically."

Five federal judges are overseeing the hearings around Florida and their ruling may end up setting a precedent for land use.

Dancaescu estimated the first trial could start as early as August.

Economic impact

According to the Sabal Trail website, the pipeline “will bring additional affordable, clean natural gas supplies to Florida, while increasing the reliability of the region’s energy delivery system and positively impacting the economy in the Southeast region of the United States.”

The company also said more than 2,700 construction jobs will be created because of the pipeline, and after its completion, 288 permanent jobs will be available.

View a map below of some of the waterways that will be in the path of the Sabal Trail Pipeline.

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