TALLAHASSEE — Environmentalists are raising concerns over a drilling mud discharge last month from a natural gas pipeline being dug under the Withlacoochee River in Georgia that could damage the river and downstream springs in Florida.
The criticisms come as Native Americans have drawn national attention to their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, and 14 people protesting the pipeline in Florida were arrested Saturday in Gilchrist County of disorderly conduct and other charges.
Sabal Trail Tranmission company officials said the discharge in the Withlacoochee River was cleaned up as they installed a floating yellow turbidity curtain, similar to an oil spill boom, to prevent the spread of two gallons of drilling mud. The river flows into Florida 15 miles downstream and eventually into the Suwannee River.
The Georgia Water Coalition on Wednesday listed the Sabal Trail pipeline on its annual “dirty dozen” list of threats to rivers in the state. Several of those rivers, including the Chattahoochee, Flint and Withlacoochee rivers, eventually flow into Florida.
John Quarterman of the WWALS Watershed Coalition environmental group in Georgia said the public was told such accidents were not possible.
“So what else can happen that they said couldn’t happen?” Quarterman asked. “And why should we take that risk or any risk for this pipeline that has never been of any benefit to the state?”
The bentonite clay in the discharged drilling mud can deplete oxygen in the river that aquatic life needs to survive, Quarterman’s group says. He said he’s also concerned that drilling could cause cave systems to collapse and cause more discharges into rivers and the Floridan Aquifer, the source of drinking water for the region.
Bert Langley, director of compliance at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division in Atlanta, said the pressurized drilling mud apparently surfaced through a crevice in the bedrock beneath the river bottom. While technically the release of any drilling mud is a permit violation, Langley said, he noted that the company acted quickly to contain the discharge and there has been no additional releases.
“We are going to monitor it a little bit,” he said. “As long as things continue the way they are, I doubt we will take any action as far as an enforcement action.”
The Sabal Trail pipeline, a joint venture of Spectra Energy, Duke Energy and the parent company of Florida Power & Light Co., will extend 515 miles from central Alabama to Osceola County in Central Florida. The company began construction in August after receiving required permits but it faces continued opposition from groups, including the Sierra Club.
Environmentalists have filed federal lawsuits to try to block the Sabal Trail pipeline, claiming it’s a threat to rivers and the Floridan Aquifer.
On Tuesday, protests were held in a dozen cities in Florida and others around the country against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Organizers in Florida said the Sabal Trail pipeline also was a focus of protests in the state.
In Tallahassee, more than 40 protesters lined North Monroe Street in Tallahassee outside of a Wells Fargo branch, chanting “pipelines over people” and “Wells Fargo, corporate greed.”
The New York Times reported that opponents are targeting Wells Fargo and other banks that have signed off on the $2.5 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.
A Wells Fargo spokeswoman told POLITICO Florida on Tuesday that the bank is one of 17 financial institutions involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Wells Fargo only does businesses with companies that have demonstrated a “strong, ongoing commitment” to complying with federal, state and local laws and regulations, the bank spokeswoman said.
Christy Crandall of Tallahassee told other protesters along North Monroe Street that there had been a pipeline leak into the Withlacoochee River in Georgia. She told POLITICO Florida that the Sabal Trail pipeline is similar to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The Withlachoochee has a direct connection to the Suwannee River basin,” said Crandall, an unemployed hydrogeologist. “That is the kind of thing that happens when you put a pipeline under a river or anywhere — it leaks. You just can’t engineer it to never leak.”
In October 2015, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had “very significant concerns” about the proposed route of the Sabal Trail pipeline posing a threat to the Floridan Aquifer in Georgia and Florida.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which had proposed issuing a state permit, urged a state hearing officer in Florida to reject a request by the WWALS Watershed Coalition to consider the EPA concerns. The group’s request came after an evidentiary hearing held in Jasper on the group’s legal challenge to the state permit.
Two months later, the federal EPA reversed itself after meetings with company officials who assured the agency that modern drilling techniques, geological understanding and other safeguards would protect the environment as well as minority communities in South Georgia.
State and federal permits for the project were issued. Environmental groups in recent months have filed new federal lawsuits to block the project but those cases have not been heard.
Andrea Grover, a spokeswoman for Sabal Trail Tranmission, said in an emailed statement on Monday that permits include best management practices and contingency plans. She also said federal monitors are at drilling sites and the project is being inspected by the various agencies.
But Quarterman, standing along the Withlacoochee River on Monday, said the company statement doesn’t address other discharges that could be occurring — or the possibility that drilling could cause the watery underground cave systems to collapse.
“We had a practicing geologist from Florida say it certainly could happen. There could be crevasses going 100 foot down or more,” Quarterman said. “They said, ‘Nope nope, it can’t happen.’ Well, it did happen.”
Grover responded in an email Tuesday that the project’s economic impacts are substantial, including an estimated $755 million from construction and another $1.5 billion over the next 60 years in property tax revenue. She also said a final environmental impact statement for the project determined it was unlikely that damage to springs or the Floridan Aquifer would occur.
Asked whether such a leak could occur again, Georgia EPD’s Langley said, “Certainly you never say never when you are dealing with things like this. That is why they do monitor it pretty closely.”
He said there was no evidence that additional discharges of the yellow drilling mud had occurred. Continued discharges, Langley said, would cause a yellow cloud of water in the river stream that would be easily visible.
“Again, this is a Catch-22,” he said. “If this is a minor thing and nobody sees it, we won’t see it either. We can’t have somebody standing there the entire time. Is there any evidence of release of a major amount of material? No.”