Protesters launch 'environmental war' to stop pipeline

Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline crosses into North Florida

LIVE OAK, Fla. – An "environmental war" is brewing in North Florida. Protesters are worried the Sabal Trail pipeline, which will run through North Florida into Central Florida, will cause an environmental disaster and contaminate the state's drinking water.

The $3 billion natural gas pipeline, which is under construction, stretches 500 miles and will connect gas lines from Alabama through Georgia to Florida. The pipeline is similar to the Dakota Access Pipeline project, which was rerouted after massive protests gained international attention.

News4Jax walked the woods along the Suwannee River in Live Oak, where protesters have set up camp in the hopes of halting further construction on the pipeline.

"We don't need it. We definitely don't need it," Josh Birmingham told News4Jax at the drill site of the underground pipeline.

Builders say it's necessary to bring clean and affordable energy to Central and South Florida, but the protesters, who call themselves "Water Watchers," have held rallies in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami, asking the government to shut down what they call an "environmental disaster."

"The water that I drink is being risked," said protester Josh Weber.

Thousands have joined in online as well, saying the digging is killing wildlife and ruining the environment. They believe a gas pipeline through rivers, springs and the Florida Aquifer will leak and fail, contaminating the entire state's water supply.  They call it irreversible damage for the families who live here.

"This is our mother. This is our Earth. And humans on this planet, we're vessels here to protect her, not destroy her," said protester Samantha Flament.

The natural gas pipeline has been in the works for years. The companies behind it -- Spectra Energy, NextEra and Duke Energy -- say it will provide power for millions. Pipeline plans show the energy will also be used by Florida Power and Light.

Representatives tell News4Jax they have had dozens of meetings with federal, state and local authorities, and hired experts to minimize the harm.

They did interview on camera with News4Jax, but did release a statement, which says in part, "The Sabal Trail pipeline will provide an economic benefit to each county the pipeline crosses, as well as the region, by creating jobs and generating local revenue through taxes, as well as help meet the growing demand for clean-burning energy resources. " (See the full statement from Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC at the bottom of this article.)

They have also released videos -- including "What Happens During Construction?" and "Energy for Life" -- to keep the public informed.

"So why natural gas? We need economic growth we can count on. Cleaner energy to protect our health, the air and the environment. Affordable, reliable power to fuel our homes and businesses," is heard in the "Energy for Life" video from Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC. "We communicate openly and regularly with landowners so that affected communities know what to expect and understand the process and safeguards we employ."

The protesters see it differently, and their campaign is growing in numbers.

"I just want to reach out to the people so people know what is going on here," Birmingham explained.

Some of the most die-hard "Water Protectors" have put everything else on hold to protest, living in Sacred Water Camps like the one we visited in Live Oak. They've been there for five months.

"You start walking through the woods and you are face-to-face with your enemy," Flament showed News4Jax at the massive construction site.

Some demonstrators have blocked the trucks from entering job sites for the project. At least 16, including a military veteran, have been arrested, accused of trespassing and obstructing roadways.

Dr. Chris Baynard, a University of North Florida geography and geographic information systems professor and director of UNF's Center for Sustainable Business Practices, researches projects such as this one.

"These pipelines are nothing new," he told News4Jax. "There are millions of miles of pipelines running throughout this country."

Baynard says natural gas is appealing because it's cheap, plentiful and relatively clean-burning. He tells us the potential for problems is major, but other energy sources, such as solar and wind power, can't keep up with Florida's fast-growing population.

"Perhaps the main question is the route of this pipeline and where should it go and who it is going to affect?" Baynard said. "What landscapes and what environments and what populations is it going to affect? And will it be rerouted based on some of the opposition?"

Despite the opposition, construction continues. Those protesting it say they'll keep this "David vs. Goliath" battle going until the water runs dry.

"Being in places like this remind us what we are fighting for," Flament told News4Jax.

The "Water Protectors" are planning a massive civil disobedience protest  -- Jan. 14 & 15 -- to stop the pipeline from crossing the Suwannee River. It'll be at the Suwannee River State Park and organizers say thousands of people could take part in it. (See the Stop Sabal Trail Facebook page and Sacred Water Camp Facebook page for more information.)

Meanwhile, the energy companies involved say the construction should be finished by June of 2017.

Full statement from Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC

"Sabal Trail respects the right of individuals to peacefully protest and express their positions in public areas. It is our obligation to safely and securely construct and operate our facilities, and we can neither tolerate nor allow trespassing. We continue to implore peaceful protestors not to place themselves or our contractors in an unsafe situation.

"The project has been developed and evaluated publicly over the past three years to ensure that environmental permitting agencies, all levels of local, state and federal government, communities and landowners’ questions were addressed and impacts along the pipeline route minimized. Over this three-year period, Sabal Trail hosted more than 50 open houses and public meetings in communities along the pipeline route and underwent a well-documented, comprehensive review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The environmental impacts of this project have been determined by Federal Energy FERC not to be significant and each of the federal and state authorizations for the construction and operation of this project are conditioned to protect the environment.

"Sabal Trail has been dedicated to mitigating impacts to Florida’s environment.  In fact, Sabal Trail employed expert regional geologists and engineers who have extensively evaluated the potential impacts to wetlands associated with construction and operation of the pipeline.  Sabal Trail is also well equipped to construct and operate the pipeline in karst areas.  Many large infrastructure projects, such as interstate highways, railroads, and cities, are already constructed through these same karst regions and have a much greater permanent impact and footprint than a pipeline. Even in the unlikely event that a sinkhole opens beneath the pipeline, the pipeline can safely span distances exceeding 100 feet. FERC’s final environmental impact statement (FEIS) also found it unlikely that Sabal Trail would impact springs or the Floridan Aquifer in the karst regions with its construction or operations.

"Sabal Trail is dedicated to the safe, reliable operation of facilities and the protection of the public, the environment and our employees. Natural gas pipelines monitor and control safety in many ways and use many different tools. Collectively, these tools make natural gas transmission pipelines one of the safest forms of energy transportation. Our safety programs are designed to prevent pipeline failures, detect anomalies, perform repairs and often exceed regulatory requirements. Once the facilities are placed in service, we will implement operations procedures designed to monitor the pipeline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we maintain the facilities per applicable federal and state regulations.

"The Sabal Trail pipeline will provide an economic benefit to each county the pipeline crosses, as well as the region, by creating jobs and generating local revenue through taxes, as well as help meet the growing demand for clean-burning energy resources."

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.