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Pipeline concerns spread to Florida

While the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota has generated national attention for most of 2016, protestors in Florida have staged several demonstrations this fall and winter to halt the construction of the Sabal Trail and Florida Southeast Connection underground natural gas transmission pipelines.

Hundreds of Tallahassee residents have rallied as the 515-mile-long Sabal Trail pipeline cuts through Springs County. Two arrests were made in December and more than a dozen arrests for trespassing were made Nov. 12 near Gainesville amid protests against the pipeline that starts in Alabama, runs through Georgia and stretches into north and central Florida.

Meanwhile, other activists have protested the 126-mile Florida Southeast Connection pipeline, which connects with the Sabal Trail pipeline in central Florida near Osceola County and ends in Martin County at Florida Power & Light’s Next Generation Clean Energy Center near Indiantown.

Protesters are concerned that the project will damage private property, harm Florida’s springs, pollute water and introduce a risk of leaks and explosions.

Spectra owns the Sabal Trail pipeline. It has partnered with NextEra Energy and Duke Energy for the project. NextEra Energy, a subsidiary of FPL’s parent company, owns and is responsible for the Florida Southeast Connection pipeline.

According to witness accounts in media reports, construction has destroyed wetlands, contaminated water, killed at least three otters, and spilled oil into creeks by equipment in-use.

Environmental groups are also claiming the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission didn’t consider the impacts of the proposed $3.5 billion projects that cut through minority and low-income communities, which they say are already overburdened with infrastructure and polluting activity.

“I am sickened by the irreversible destruction of our lands, waters, and wildlife; our wetlands are precious to us as they are the cooling system in Florida and provide a necessary habitat for many species,” said activist Shannon Larsen, who has been protesting the Florida Southeast Connection since Sept. 12 and the Sabal Train connection for three years. “Our waters we cherish and our lands we have sought to steward in a manner that insures that the next generations may enjoy what we have, and that the wildlife have places to call home as well.”

Dave McDermitt, spokesperson for NextEra Energy, said the company respects the right for people to protest in a peaceful manner and the underground pipeline has received all needed approvals from federal, state, and local government agencies, which he said was nearly a three-year review process.

“More U.S.-produced natural gas is vitally needed to meet Florida’s growing energy needs. Natural gas is good for the environment and good for Florida consumers, including lower electric bills and fewer emissions,” McDermitt said. “We reached out to many stake holders and organizations, including Native American tribes, such as the Seminoles.”

Similar sentiments were reflected by Spectra spokeswoman Andrea Grover, who also speaks for Duke Energy’s minority share in Sabal Trail, when asked what the company will do to ensure there are no gas leaks, oil leaks, and killing of animals.

“Sabal Trail is dedicated to the safe, reliable operation of facilities and the protection of the public, the environment and our employees,” Grover said in an email response to The Tribune. “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 environmental impacts of this project have been determined by [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] 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.”

Despite the companies’ assurances, activists – including some Natives – have been continuously documenting the conditions of the construction of the pipeline and claim otherwise.

Activists have written letters to President Obama, provided images of oil leaks and trees that have been destroyed, and expressed their concerns about how both pipelines have been operating as they continue to monitor construction.

A two-hour protest in Okeechobee, which started on the corner of Parrot Avenue and Park Street on Oct. 16, was led by Bobby C. Billie, of the Council of Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples. The protest was held to stop the construction of the Florida Southeast Connection pipeline that Billie believes has already destroyed sacred land, including wetlands and trees that are hundreds of years old in Fort Drum Creek.

Since 2006, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 25 incidents that caused more than $12 million in property damage along Spectra’s main line — the Texas Eastern Transmission that connects Texas and the Gulf Coast with big urban markets in the Northeast — and the causes ranged from equipment failure and incorrect operations to pipe corrosion, according to an article published in the Miami Herald in 2015.

The agency found numerous federal rules violations during the same period and slapped Spectra with a total of $400,000 in fines — not counting another $59,000 proposed penalty for failing to construct a pipeline in Pennsylvania in accordance with written specifications, according to the Herald article.

According to Spectra’s website, the company is planning to merge with Enbridge, a company that is pending a minority share with the DAPL, in order to create North America’s largest energy infrastructure company.

The recent controversy in North Dakota is about a 1,172-mile-long crude oil pipeline – a portion of which is slated to be built a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation – in a $3.78-billion project by Energy Transfer. However, according to Enbridge media spokesperson Michael Barnes, the company has not merged with Energy Transfer yet and they are pending a minority stake in the company.

“Enbridge has a good relationship with Native Americans in the U.S. and Indigenous tribes in Canada. We fully respect Native Americans in their customs and their beliefs and we always try to work with them,” Barnes said.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s argues that any leaks from the DAPL would contaminate their only water supply. The tribe also said the construction of the pipeline would disturb sacred burial sites.

Natives from across the nation have camped on and near the reservation, located in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to protest the pipeline that could potentially transport 570,000 oil barrels a day, according to reports.

Since the start of the protest in the spring of 2016, thousands of protestors, including Seminoles and other Natives from tribes across the country, have traveled to North Dakota to help the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. There have been more than 300 arrests and rising, according to various reports.

Unlike the DAPL, the Sabal Trail pipeline and the Florida Southeast Connection pipeline have not reached high levels of unrest but are starting to receive increased attention from environmentalists, activists, and Florida residents whose growing presence is apparent on social media with more than 7,000 members on the Facebook page ‘Stop Sabal Trail Pipeline.’

According to a recent radio interview by 88.5 WMNF News in Tampa, one of the recent arrests in Gainesville was made because a man tied himself to the axle of a water truck that was scheduled to take water out of the Santa Fe River — a river protestors say is at a critical level.

Protestors claim the company was allegedly taking water from one side of the Santa Fe River and transporting it to another side of the river, where the company was allegedly drilling and mixing different chemicals and filters right back into the water, according to the WMNF News report.

Opponents are concerned the Florida Southeast Connection pipeline and the Sabal Trail pipelines are not receiving the attention they believe they deserve and wonder whether state lawmakers and other government officials will get involved.

“They’re going after the most vulnerable and pristine land first,” Winter Haven resident Ann Jackson said. “[Spectra gets] a slap on the wrist, fined, and keeps destroying the land. They will bring much devastation to the entire state of Florida if their pipeline leaks into the Floridan Aquifer.”

Spectra has denied Jackson’s claims and said Sabal Trail will not significantly impact karst terrain, springs, or the Floridian Aquifer with its construction or operations. However, activist Ronald Reedy, who has worked as a commercial diver doing underwater welding and left the field because of an accident where thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the ocean, said fracking in Central Florida will affect the water in South Florida as it flows through the aquifer.

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at rocks to release the gas inside of them. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure, which allows the gas to flow out of the rocks.

“We only have one Earth and so much water; after it’s all polluted, we the people are done,” Reedy said.