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FPL's proposed $3.5 billion natural gas pipeline faces opposition


Beth Gordon, a former Wellington resident, moved to Williston in rural Levy County five years ago. She and her husband own a 32-acre horse farm there.

“It’s as close to perfect as it gets. Except now I’m being forced to accept an outrageous risk that I want no part of,” said Gordon, an attorney.

What Gordon and other residents don’t want coming their way is a proposed 591-mile natural gas pipeline that Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light Co. says is needed to supply its South Florida power plants. The 36-inch steel pipeline is going to come across their idyllic properties.

Buried three feet under ground, the pipeline could pose dangers such as an explosion or water pollution no matter where it is placed, Gordon says. Those are a just couple of the many reasons residents in North Florida, Georgia and Alabama don’t want the pipeline built. It would be the state’s third major natural gas pipeline

In December, Gordon founded SpectraBusters, an umbrella group of 25 allied organizations named for Spectra Energy, a Houston company that’s partnering with FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy Inc., in the project’s northern 465 miles. That portion is called Sabal Trail. The southern 126 miles, Florida Southeast Connection, would extend to FPL’s Martin County plant.

SpectraBusters includes such groups as Greenlaw, the Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and individuals who oppose the pipeline and the fracked gas, gas extracted from shale, it will transport. They call it the “fracked methane pipeline.”

“Now they are going to take our land,” said Gordon. “This pipeline is a dangerous enterprise. This gas is under a serious amount of pressure. If there is a compromised pipe, it is going to blow.”

Ten months ago FPL announced the proposed $3.5 billion pipeline that would originate in Alabama and end at its Indiantown plant and touted its many benefits.

Among them were ensuring an ample supply of natural gas from diverse sources, including on-shore supplies of fracked gas and lessening the vulnerability from supply disruptions from severe weather in the Gulf of Mexico. The proposed pipeline is designed to deliver up to 1.1 billion cubic feet a day to FPL’s Martin County Clean Energy Center, then to its plants in Riviera Beach and Port Everglades.

Now thousands of residents in the three states have called the proposal massive, invasive, environmentally damaging and unnecessary, and even dishonest, sneaky, foolhardy and ill-advised. The residents, environmental groups and legislators have weighed in at more than 50 public hearings and in comments, emails and letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC, the agency which approves pipeline routes, is in the early stages of considering the proposal. The formal application is not expected to be submitted until at least November.

Wednesday, during a call with financial analysts, NextEra’s vice chairman and chief financial officer Moray Dewhurst said he expects FERC to approve the project in 2015 and for it to be in service by 2017.

But in April the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submitted at 16-page comment letter to FERC in which it questioned the need for the pipeline. The EPA raised many of the issues that landowners, ranchers and farmers have passionately expounded upon at packed public hearings. That includes potential threats to water, springs, rivers, wetlands, land, air and wildlife.

The EPA has recommended consideration of such alternatives as energy conservation and the expansion of FPL’s residential weatherization program.

The agency also wants to know whether it’s safe to lay a new 36-inch pipeline near a 10-inch pipeline built in the 50s and cites the March explosion of a 1980s-era pipeline in East Harlem New York.

FPL spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood said many of the questions the EPA raised were addressed during the Florida Public Service Commission’s approval process as well as in FPL’s letter to FERC. The PSC gave its OK in October for FPL to enter into long-term contracts for the pipeline’s gas.

“We look forward to providing additional information as needed,” Gatewood said.

Sabal Trail Transmission spokeswoman Andrea Grover said the route has not been finalized. Input from its survey work, environmental agencies and other experts has led to the route being changed. The current route maps can be viewed by county at www.sabaltrail.com.

“Details of our routing will be filed in draft resource reports to FERC in June, and we will continue to explore routing for our formal FERC Application later this year,” Grover said.

Under the latest route, the pipeline would cross roughly a dozen rivers such as the Chattahoochee and the Santa Fe as well as major springs including Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs. Endangered or protected wildlife species such as the gopher tortoise, Sherman Fox squirrel, burrowing owl and several types of woodpeckers as well as other wildlife lie within the pipeline’s path.

The National Park Service says the pipeline will cross the 1,000 mile Florida National Scenic Trail four times, and says federal law forbids the conversion of recreation land to other uses without the secretary of the Interior’s approval.

Eric Draper, executive director, Audubon Florida, said of the EPA’s comments: “They raised some very important points, not the least of which is asking for evidence that it is really needed for reliablity given the other two sources of energy. The biggest problem with the long-term habitat impact is that they tend to keep vegetation under control where the pipelines are. They are worried about roots growing into the pipeline.”

Audubon has asked Sabal Trail to avoid areas crucial to wildlife and to Florida’s Aquifer, such as the H‏álpata Tastanaki Preserve near Dunnellon and the Green Swamp, and in general to bypass natural areas and public lands. Areas such as as cotton farms and pine forests are not as sensitive, Draper said.

“There is no way to put a pipeline in without having some environmental impacts,” Draper said.

But the law provides that the companies must prove the pipeline is necessary and requires them to avoid, minimize or mitigate environmental impacts.

Colquitt County Georgia land owner Sandra Jones fears the worst if the pipeline comes through her family’s 150-acre farm for a mile on a 125-foot wide right-of-way as planned. Heavy equipment will be required to dig trenches 10 to 11-feet deep. The cropland will be destroyed.

“They are trying to come through my back yard and within 50 feet of my house,” Jones said.

John Quarterman, a Lowndes County, Ga. farmer, is vice president of the WALS Watershed Coalition. Its goal is to conserve the Willacoochee, Withlacoochee, Alapaha, and Little River Systems watershed in south Georgia and north Florida.

“The pipeline crosses the Withlacoochee twice and goes through the aquifer recharge. It would take people’s land for a one-time payment, which is ridiculous when FPL will profit forever from the pipeline,” Quarterman said.

Gordon, Quarterman and other pipeline opponents believe FPL and NextEra plan to profit by exporting natural gas to the Bahamas, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Although FPL says it has no plans to export the gas, the residents say it would be easy enough for FPL to sell any surplus to such export firms as Carib Energy LLC.

Quarterman said the route has been moved three times.

“They keep fiddling with it. I have a proposed path — move it into the Gulf and cancel it,” Quarterman said.



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