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A sign on Dunn Road expresses one resident's feelings about a proposed natural gas pipeline in this file photo from August 2014. An alternate route for the Sabal Trail pipeline, if it ultimately is approved, would pass through the entirety of Colquitt County.

MOULTRIE — Some of the local folk keeping tabs on the proposed Sabal Trail natural gas line allege that the due dilligence that is supposed to be involved is a hoax.

Landowners and environmentalists expressed concerns Tuesday about the process involved in crafting an environmental impact statement for the pipeline as well as a lack of communication and cooperation from the company behind the project.

The pipeline, a joint project of Spectra Energy Partners LP and NextEra Energy Inc., is seeking to build a large natural gas pipeline from Alabama to Orlando, Fla., to serve customers of Florida Power and Light. The preferred route under consideration has it running through Albany, where a proposed pressure station has drawn fire; through Mitchell County, where a proposed tap will allow it to serve South Georgia customers; and on through Colquitt, Brooks and Lowndes counties before entering Florida.

About 20 people attended a public hearing at Withers Auditorium Tuesday evening, sponsored by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is writing the environmental impact statement. More than half of them spoke, and all who spoke opposed the pipeline, either on general principal or as it applied to their property.

The hearing is one of 10 being held by FERC as it prepares the environmental impact statement to help determine whether the pipeline should be permitted and, if so, under what conditions. Similar hearings were held in Albany Monday and in Valdosta Wednesday. 

Written comments can be submitted via FERC’s website, www.ferc.gov, through Oct. 26, according to FERC Project Manager John Peconom. Click here to go to the FERC eComments page.

Peconom emphasized twice during the presentation and again in discussion with The Moultrie Observer that the document he’s preparing is still in its draft stage and comments such as those during the hearings will be used to make it more accurate before it reaches its final form.

“We have looked [at the route],” he said, “and we are continuing to look at it.”

Nonetheless, some speakers took issue with what appear to be close ties between FERC and those it is supposed to regulate.

Mark Woodall of the Sierra Club noted that a pipeline-laying company provided much information for the environmental impact statement, and both it and the company responsible for a map of sinkholes along the proposed route are contractors with Spectra Energy.

“It appears all the documents are being supplied by people paid by Spectra,” Woodall alleged.

John Quarterman, president of WWALS, an environmental group focused on the watersheds of the Willacoochee, Withlacoochee, Alapaha, Little and Suwannee rivers, went so far as to accuse FERC of collusion, since its operations are paid for by fees from the energy companies it regulates.

Peconom’s only response to the remarks was to reiterate that public comments about the project will be considered as FERC continues to craft its environmental impact statement.

Local landowners focused their anger not on FERC but on Spectra Energy, the driving force behind Sabal Trail. They accused the company of providing poor information for FERC’s study and of a lack of communication and cooperation with landowners.

James Bell, a Mitchell County landowner, told the FERC panel that he watched a group of surveyors who were supposed to be scouting for evidence of endangered species, such as gopher tortoises.

Bell said the company had told him it needed a 100-foot-wide passage through his property for the pipeline but it needed to survey 300 feet wide to determine the best placement. He said the team of surveyors did not go 300 feet into the heavy brush and he didn’t think they went 100 feet in.

“They did not do it [conduct a survey],” he said. “They did not intend to do it. If they’re the ones who provided this EIS, it’s a farce.”

Susan Jones, one of the first opponents of the pipeline in Colquitt County, said she asked surveyors on her property for their credentials. She said the land surveyors were not licensed and the environmental surveyors appeared to be college kids and weren’t affiliated with any environmental group.

“These reports are a hoax,” she said.

Several speakers complained of Spectra Energy’s lack of openness, lack of communications and lack of cooperation in planning the pipeline’s route. Harrison Isaacs, speaking with The Observer after the hearing, said he sent an email to Spectra Energy in early September; it was three weeks before he received any response at all, despite follow-up texts and emails from him and his business partners.

Isaacs; his father, Greg Isaacs; and Daniel Dunn own property north of Ice House America on Highway 319 South, which they plan for commercial development.

Dunn said the Sabal Trail was planned to run alongside an existing, much smaller natural gas pipeline called SONAT, for Southern Natural Gas. Other speakers, in fact, had complained about safety issues because of the two pipelines being so close together.

But in the case of Dunn and the Isaacs, the problem stemmed from the lines being too far apart. In the proposed route, the Sabal Trail line would have to veer away from SONAT to go around a house. In most cases when it has to do this, it resumes running alongside SONAT very shortly. When it veers around this particular house, though, it goes a significant distance south to cut across the property he and the Isaacs own.

The trio still has not heard from Spectra Energy why the route should deviate that far from SONAT, he said.

Other concerns expressed at Tuesday’s meeting essentially repeat statements made in earlier hearings on the matter:

• Safety issues include the effect of sinkholes and the severity of any incident in which Sabal Trail and the 50-year-old SONAT line are both involved. Landowners are pushing to require the pipeline to be five feet deep through agricultural land.

• Environmental concerns include leakage from the pipeline that might get into water. The planned route will also run the pipeline through wetland areas.

No representative from the Sabal Trail project was on hand Tuesday night, but Andrea Grover, director of stakeholder outreach for Spectra Energy, emailed a statement to The Observer prior to the meeting.

“Sabal Trail has been evaluating proposed routes, design and construction methods and impacts to community members and the environment since June 2013,” Grover wrote. “Over this nearly 2 1/2 years of discussions, surveys, studies and planning, Sabal Trail feels it has devised a balanced plan for the route, construction techniques, and measures to avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts. We feel that in its DEIS [draft environmental impact statement] FERC has performed a very comprehensive evaluation of the environmental impacts and has proposed reasonable conditions to mitigate those impacts for the Sabal Trail project.”

She said the draft environmental impact statement notes that construction will temporarily affect the environment, but the project would not result in a significant environmental impact. 

Citing the statement, she said FERC has determined Sabal Trail will not significantly impact the terrain, springs or Floridan aquifer; FERC found no evidence that sinkhole development will pose a safety risk; and water impacts, including surface, wetland and well impacts, will be effectively minimized or mitigated and would be temporary.

“Sabal Trail will adequately avoid or minimize impacts to protected species habitat and will implement construction and restoration measures with FERC, in consultation with other federal and state agency, recommendations,” Grover said.

She added that FERC has suggested further specific recommendations with regard to geology, potential for sinkholes, river crossings, soils, aquifers and federal and state listed species.

In addition, she said FERC found Sabal Trail will not have a significantadverse effect on local communities or the socioeconomics of an area, including on property values.

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