South Georgia pipeline fight turns into battle over eminent domain

A Texas company wants to condemn private property in Georgia for a pipeline to deliver energy to Florida.

Sound familiar?

It should. For the second time this year an interstate pipeline builder threatens to use eminent domain to seize Georgia land from reluctant property owners.

In late March, the Palmetto Pipeline, expected to run near Augusta, Savannah and Brunswick, was suspended after a huge public outcry prompted state officials to, at least temporarily, ban the use of condemnation for petroleum pipelines.

Monday, a federal judge in Columbus will weigh whether another Texas pipeline company can invoke eminent domain to immediately gain control of 27 properties in southwest Georgia for a pipe delivering natural gas to Florida. The Sabal Trail Pipeline would cross 157 miles and nine Georgia counties — as well as plantations near Albany owned by Ted Turner and former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham — without any assurance that gas would end up in Georgia.

“The pipelines are very, very similar because they were threatened with eminent domain the same way,” said Sandra Jones, 71, whose house and farm near Moultrie are targeted by the pipeline builder. “It’s really horrible because this is my home, my father’s home, my granddaddy’s home and my great-granddaddy’s home, and (the pipeline) would destroy our farm. I feel like I’m letting them down.”

A pipeline owned by Sabal Trail’s parent company exploded Friday in Pennsylvania, sending one man to the hospital and charring acres of tall trees. The timing, for Sabal Trail, couldn’t have been worse.

“A similar explosion would take us out. We would be ash,” said Jones, whose home lies within 100 feet of the pipe’s proposed route.

In a statement Friday, Spectra Energy, the parent company, said, “Our first concern is for the safety of the community and our employees.”

Georgia legislators voted overwhelmingly in late March to deny easements that Sabal Trail Transmissions needs to bore under five rivers, including the Chattahoochee, Flint and Withlacoochee. The Houston-based company, though, is undeterred and expects construction to begin by June 21 to meet a May 2017 in-service deadline.

The $3 billion project — 465 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida — was authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in February. Sabal Trail held contractor fairs last month in Florida. It received federal permission to begin mitigating any impacts to gopher tortoises. A Georgia clean air permit was issued April 15.

It has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to six southwest Georgia schools, including $50,000 to Darton State College in Albany, “to establish a positive footprint in the communities along the pipeline route,” spokeswoman Andrea Grover said.

Sabal Trail has purchased easements to run underground pipes from 89 percent of the 1,600 property owners in the three states. It still needs to cut deals with 233 landowners — the bulk in Florida — or else get a judge’s permission to condemn their property.

“The pipeline will benefit the Southeast region by making available additional supplies and new energy infrastructure to support the growing demand for clean-burning natural gas,” Grover said. “Sabal Trail will increase energy diversity, security and reliability to these Southeast markets.”

Opposition to the pipeline goes well beyond a visceral aversion to an industrial, and potentially explosive, project in peoples' backyards. In addition to running underneath the rivers, it would cross three state parks and thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive wetlands.

Much of the ground below southwest Georgia is limestone that allows water to flow easily between streams and springs. Leaks, critics fear, could send gas into the water supply. Pipeline construction could create sinkholes that drain streams or puncture subterranean waterways. And, with abundant sunshine, Florida can produce plenty of renewable energy without extracting and transporting fossil fuels, opponents say. Albany and Valdosta, as well as Dougherty and Lowndes counties, have passed resolutions opposing the pipeline.

Monday, in Columbus, Sabal Trail will ask a federal judge to allow condemnation for pipeline rights-of-way on 27 Georgia properties, including a 9,000-acre plantation owned by Turner and a 7,300-acre plantation owned by Graham. Turner’s attorney declined to comment. Graham’s attorney, Ed Hallman of Marietta, said his client’s “biggest problem” is that the deal offered by Sabal Trail would let it run the pipeline anywhere on a 3,000-acre tract of Graham’s cattle and quail-hunting farm.

Steve Caley, an attorney with GreenLaw in Atlanta who’s representing property owners and environmental groups, said it makes no legal sense to give Sabal Trail the ability to condemn property when it doesn’t have the state permit needed to dig under the rivers.

“Sabal Trail is not producing any benefit to the citizens of Georgia, and that’s no different than what the Palmetto Pipeline (tried) to do in east Georgia,” Caley said. “They’re both private companies taking peoples’ property for private profit. And it’s particularly repugnant when all the natural gas will be used in Florida.”

Grover, the spokeswoman, said no gas distribution deals have been signed in Georgia, but four communities have expressed interest in tapping into the pipeline. All landowners, she added, have been offered reasonable right-of-way payments. And the pipe running below the rivers will be, on average, 47 feet below a river’s bottom.

By virtue of the FERC’s approval, Grover said, Sabal Trail has the right to use eminent domain to acquire the remaining easements.

In March a Fulton County judge ruled that another Texas company couldn't use eminent domain to take property from unwilling landowners along the path of the Palmetto Pipeline. The company "suspended" plans to build the $1 billion project a few weeks later.

The two pipelines, despite their obvious similarities, are different in a few key respects. Palmetto was planned to carry gas, diesel and ethanol, all products that require greater state scrutiny and approval. Natural gas pipelines fall largely under the regulatory approval of the feds. Gov. Nathan Deal's opposition to Palmetto, at the strong urging of Billy Morris, who owns the newspapers in Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla., all but killed the pipeline.

"Sabal Trail has less political clout behind it," said state Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Democrat from Junction City who helped lead legislative opposition to the pipeline. "And I really feel like the sparse population of southwest Georgia is the main thing that works against keeping Sabal Trail away."