The Sabal Trail Pipeline: An environmental disaster — Celebrate this MLK Day weekend by stopping it

by Sabal Trail Resistance (STR)

By now, you’ve likely heard that there is a fracked-gas pipeline under construction through the southeastern U.S.

In the wake of effective opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies at the Missouri River crossing in North Dakota, resistance to this southern pipeline, known as Sabal Trail, has been growing.

While many are only now learning of this pipeline, it has been raising environmental justice, health, and regulatory questions among the public along the route since the scoping period for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) began three years ago.

Now that people are actually seeing the active construction sites all across the southern states, there is a major escalation underway to stop the project from going online. Over the Martin Luther King Day weekend of January 14 and 15, activists from across the country are planning to descend on the site where the pipeline is currently drilling under the Suwannee River, into the Floridan Aquifer. This aquifer is the drinking water supply for millions of people across the South.

The water protectors will meet at 11 a.m. at the Suwannee River State Park near Live Oak in North Florida.

While this part of the country is not known for a history of environmental civil disobedience, the Black-led civil rights movement of the South left a legacy of direct action that provided a foundation for many social movements that followed after it.

As the opposition to DAPL was grounded in the spiritual traditions of Native communities in the Plains region of this country, the South is also a place with deep spiritual traditions, including those that African Americans have carried on for generations.

Faye Williams is a well-known activist from Gainesville’s Porters neighborhood, a historic Black community in Alachua County. She is planning on participating in the upcoming demonstrations and says that her belief in the Holy Spirit of the Yoruba River Goddess, Yemaya, is an inspiration for doing so.

“Yemaya is a mother goddess, the goddess of home, fertility, love and family. Like water, she represents both change and constancy — bringing forth life, protecting it, and changing it as necessary,” Williams explained. “It is my prayer and hope that we will have a bunch of women who will come to the Suwannee River to protest and risk arrest to save our water — the rivers, the creeks, the oceans, the land.” 

She says she is also inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to join the action this month. When asked why she is choosing the path of civil disobedience, she simply referred to a quote of MLK “Every man [and woman] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his [her] convictions, but we must protest.”

Williams has another connection to MLK: January 15 is also her birthday.

Sabal Trail and Environmental Racism

Environmental Justice (EJ) is defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Local landowners, environmental organizations, and even political representatives, have spoken up to oppose the project on the grounds of environmental justice. In one example, four Georgia Congressmen [Sanford D. Bishop, Jr.; John Lewis; Hank Johnson, Jr.; and David Scott] — all members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — sent a letter last year to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that raised concerns about Sabal Trail and accompanying compressor station.

The letter stated that the pipeline and compressor station would “further burden an already overburdened and disadvantaged African-American community” in Dougherty County, Georgia.

The congressmen asked FERC to abandon its proposed pipeline route and compressor station location and to propose alternatives that will not adversely impact environmental justice communities in southwest Georgia. The agency ignored them.

As a result, several environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the 516-mile-long, $3 billion pipeline regarding the environmental justice concerns in those areas not being fully taken in to consideration by FERC. This amounts to a clear violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 12898, which both require federal agencies to take a hard look at impacts such as environmental racism or discrimination based on income levels.

In the case of Sabal Trail’s EIS, FERC admitted that 83 percent of the populations along its route fall into the EJ category, yet they did little-to-nothing to assess actual impacts to these communities in the event of leaks or explosions.

For example, the Sabal Trail’s proposed route will go through Dougherty County and will run through low-income African-American neighborhoods there.

The letter from the CBC congressmen explained, “The proposed industrial compressor station facility would sit right in the middle of an African-American residential neighborhood comprised of two large subdivisions, a mobile home park, schools, recreational facilities, and the 5,000-plus member Mount Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation.”

One hundred and sixty miles of the pipeline are slated to cross through nine counties in southwest Georgia, including Dougherty County, where approximately 72 percent of the population is Black and the median household income is $28,871 for a family of four, with about 32 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Communities in Dougherty County are also massively overburdened by pollution. There are already 259 hazardous waste facilities, 78 facilities producing and releasing air pollutants, 20 facilities releasing toxic pollutants, and 16 facilities releasing pollutants into the waterways.

Cancer-related deaths are higher in southwest Georgia than in the rest of the state.

“This residential area therefore is the last place where such a facility should be placed, and it most certainly should not be located near a disadvantaged African-American neighborhood that has already borne more than its fair share of pollution,” the congressmen wrote in their letter.

“Common sense would suggest that a pipeline carrying a highly flammable substance and a massive polluting industrial facility should not be placed in any residential community, much less an environmental justice community.”

Natural gas pipelines don’t have the same spill risk as oil pipelines do, but they do carry the danger of exploding, and their compressor stations are loud and disruptive for residents. Additionally, undetected gas leaks can also pose threats to human health, wildlife and ecosystems.

Sandra Jones, 71, owns a house and farm near Moultrie, Georgia, impacted by the pipeline. “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 last year in Pennsylvania, sending one man to the hospital and charring acres of forest.

“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 addition to direct threats from the pipeline, the drilling and extraction process of this gas also results in the leakage of methane, a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide.

The EPA initially raised concerns that the pipeline could have had significant impacts on federally protected land, groundwater, and surface water. According to the EPA’s statement, FERC didn’t fully identify avoidance and mitigation measures. Energy companies behind Sabal Trail moved forward anyway. But the fight is far from over. If pending lawsuits and public pressure succeed, this project could be forced back to the drawing board on its Environmental Impact Statement.

Your presence at the action on January 14th will be a turning point in the movement to stop this pipeline.

For more information:

Sabal Trail Resistance (STR) is an ad hoc organizing effort that come out of local opposition to this pipeline and the national Earth First! movement.  STR also wants you to know that this pipeline passes several miles from Coleman, the federal prison where Leonard Peltier, American Indian Movement prisoner of the 1973 Wounded Knee stand-off, is currently held. 

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