Pipeline project continues in Albany, raising concerns amid COVID-19

Demonstrators in 2016 protested plans to build the Sabal Trail pipeline. Now, there are concerns about air pollution as the company gets ready to put a compressor station into service in Albany. CONTRIBUTED BY RICHARD GRAULICH

caption arrowCaption
Demonstrators in 2016 protested plans to build the Sabal Trail pipeline. Now, there are concerns about air pollution as the company gets ready to put a compressor station into service in Albany. CONTRIBUTED BY RICHARD GRAULICH

A controversial pipeline project running gas from Alabama through Georgia to users in Florida is scheduled to begin operating a compressor station by next month in Albany, one of the state’s hardest-hit areas in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sabal Trail Transmission LLC had initially requested an extension to put the compressor station into service, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, but two weeks later, the pipeline company reversed course, asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to grant a request for the facilities to begin service by the original deadline of May 1.

That request was granted earlier this week.

“Sabal Trail continued to believe that construction could be completed and the Phase II Project facilities placed into service in the near future but requested the extension of time out of an abundance of caution due to potential delays that could be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Andrea Grover, spokeswoman for the pipeline company.

But environmental advocates, concerned about the potential for increased air pollution resulting from compressor emissions, said the federal agency should have required Sabal Trail — a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy Inc. and Duke Energy — to submit a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) given the presence of a global pandemic.

Emissions such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, which the compressor could emit into the surrounding residential community, contribute to a range of health issues, including respiratory problems. Researchers have recently connected long-term exposure to air pollution, specifically particulate matter, to an increase in fatal outcomes for COVID-19 patients.

“These are the same pollutants being emitted by the compressor station that is in Albany that should never have been put in Albany in the first place,” said Elly Benson, senior attorney of Sierra Club. “What FERC should have done is tell them no, you can’t start up this polluting facility in this area that is incredibly hard hit by coronavirus in the middle of a pandemic.”

It is the latest twist in a five-year effort to reduce impacts of the pipeline in southwest Georgia. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency expressed concerns about the potential impact to groundwater, wetlands and rivers. Georgia House representatives drafted a letter highlighting environmental justice concerns in the predominantly African American community.

But by 2016, FERC and state agencies had authorized the $3 billion project, and the following year, parts of the pipeline were already operational. Sabal Trail donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Dougherty County community "to establish a positive footprint," Grover told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2016, even as landowners took issue with tactics being used to acquire land in the pipeline's path.

caption arrowCaption
Map of Sabal Trail pipeline and compressor station in Dougherty County. CONTRIBUTED BY SABAL TRAIL TRANSMISSION

Map of Sabal Trail pipeline and compressor station in Dougherty County. CONTRIBUTED BY SABAL TRAIL TRANSMISSION

caption arrowCaption
Map of Sabal Trail pipeline and compressor station in Dougherty County. CONTRIBUTED BY SABAL TRAIL TRANSMISSION

In August 2017, in response to a lawsuit from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia directed FERC to prepare a new environmental impact statement addressing the cumulative impact of potential greenhouse gas emissions from burning gas carried by the pipeline.

>> Read more: Court orders new environmental review for Sabal Trail Pipeline

Now as the project enters the next planned phase, critics say at the very least, Sabal Trail should have had to assess the environmental impact given the new circumstances presented by a global pandemic.

“It is egregious at the moment in time when our community is suffering from this dangerous respiratory disease, that disproportionately impacts environmental justice communities, for FERC to rubber-stamp this project without any review given the situation. It is an affront to the community,” said Dougherty County Commissioner Gloria Gaines in a statement.

In late March, the county became a hot spot for the virus with the state's highest per capita concentration of patients known to be infected with COVID-19. As of April 24, the county has 1,487 reported cases and 108 deaths.

According to data from FERC, the Albany compressor station has the potential to emit particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds once it is in operation.

“Sabal Trail’s compressor stations are designed, permitted, constructed and operated in compliance with state and federal regulations,” Grover said in response to questions about how emissions from the compressor stations are monitored.

In approving the request on Wednesday, FERC said based on their most recent field inspections, the restoration and rehabilitation to affected areas was proceeding satisfactorily. Sabal Trail must retain environmental inspections staff, monitor the land affected by the compressor station and address any issues that arise, wrote J. Rich McGuire, director of the Division of Gas, Environment and Engineering.

Even if the company complies with national air quality regulations, there is no safe threshold for certain pollutants, said Benson, who sent a letter to FERC asking the agency to deny the request to put the station into service. The Sierra Club is evaluating next steps, she said.

On Friday, the community sprang into action. One resident launched a social media campaign asking her followers to call Gov. Brian Kemp. Albany Cares, a nonprofit that connects individuals in need to community resources, began circulating a petition on the Action Network, a platform to organize people and mobilize activists, a few days after learning the project would move forward. The petition had 69 of 100 requested signatures by Friday evening.

But some residents worry it may be too late. Albernell King, 71, who lives less than 2.5 miles from the compressor station, said it seems as if it is all a done deal. “I just think we are going to start seeing a lot of respiratory problems with our elderly and our children,” he said. “We tried to fight a good fight.”

About the Author

Editors' Picks