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Adam Dubbin
Adam Dubbin

An unabridged email interview with AccuWeather’s Chaffin Mitchell

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I had the pleasure of being interviewed via email by AccuWeather’s Chaffin Mitchell for an article on the Sabal Trail Pipeline at the beginning of January, 2017. While I am by no means disappointed with the published version, I’d like to share the entire contents of the interview to get more encompassing answers to many people’s questions.


Chaffin Mitchell: What makes this pipeline so dangerous to the environment and people? Who are the people it will affect?
 
Adam Dubbin: The Sabal Trail Pipeline is a three-foot-in-diameter steel pipeline carrying unrefined natural gas harvested using the hydraulic fracking process transferred under high pressure over a 515-mile stretch from Alabama to Florida. Being unrefined, the payload will contain a heterogenous mixture of volatile hydrocarbons, as well as other naturally occurring geological impurities and chemicals used in the fracking process, many of which are known toxins and carcinogens. The pipeline is being built through an area of the state where the Floridan aquifer is completely exposed; this area is a geological formation called karst topography and is essentially a bedrock of porous limestone. Karst topography is notorious for the prevalence of sinkholes, and the area of Florida that the pipeline is traveling through is pockmarked with old ones and ripe areas just waiting to collapse below the surface. Additionally, the suburban locations the pipeline is snaking through are consistently low-income areas—already imperiled by the sinkholes—and many out in more rural areas have faced imminent domain. The pipeline also crossed directly through at least one known Native American burial site. While those people living along the construction face an immediate impact, any Florida resident who depends on water from the Floridan aquifer is also at long-term risk of dealing with contaminated water.

So here are the problems:

(1) Karst topography is very fragile and is naturally susceptible to rupture; the construction of the pipeline itself will exacerbate any existing weaknesses. Then there’s the potential of a sinkhole creating a rupture in the pipeline resulting in a disastrous outcome, especially if pipeline contents seep into the aquifer or ignite. Additionally, the process of horizontal directional drilling under rivers and marshlands in places including the historic Suwannee, Santa Fe and Withlacoochee Rivers pose a significant threat to the integrity of the karst structures supporting those ecosystems. A collapse is potentially devastating depending on how involved the surrounding geology is with the event;
 
(2) Compressor stations that regulate the pressure of the gas traveling through the pipeline will off-gas into the local atmosphere in order to effectively maintain consistent pressure. The compressor stations have a two-mile affect radius that these gasses being released can reach, which significantly affects humans, fauna and even flora. These chemicals include benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen disulfide, and others. The compressor stations are also a source of significant noise pollution which have neurological and cardiological effects on both humans and animals;

(3) The blast radius for the pipeline is estimated to be 1,000 feet. Being mostly shallowly buried, any person, animal or plant within that range of a pipeline during a volatile rupture will be incinerated upon ignition;

(4) Imminent domain has been used to take land from property owners and has allowed them to lay the pipeline in more populated areas without direct consent from residents. In many cases, home owners associations and other housing entities had exerted very little effort into informing their residents;

(5) Water is the singularly most important resource when it comes to this state’s most critical industry: tourism. The places people come from afar to see in this state all involve water. So anything that is an inherent threat to our water is an inherent threat to our economy;

(6) The construction is disturbing and destroying the natural habitats of many endangered and protected species; they actually have permission to harm, harass and kill any of these animals. Many people are very unhappy about this.

 
CM: Who benefits from this pipeline?
 
AD: SPECTRA, the agency that is building the pipeline, promises jobs and tax revenue as a result of the project. Thus far, not a single vehicle on any site has been spotted with a Florida tag, and everything down to the Port-A-Lets are registered out of state, not to mention a majority of the materials are also of non-Floridian provenance, with exception of the water they use for the drilling process which they have been taking from those very threatened rivers already endangered. Further, Florida Power and Light has stated that Florida does not expect to experience an energy deficit until 2025 at the earliest, so there is no market demand for this energy source. Meanwhile, there are liquified natural gas (LNG) plants under construction on both coasts that these pipelines are branching off towards, and it is expected that these will be packaging plants for the exportation of LNG. So in short, the hydrocarbon industry and its investors are the beneficiaries thus far; Floridians are left to manage all of the risk and to hold the proverbial bag.

 
CM: What agencies approved this pipeline? Federal, state, local government agencies

AD: The primary agencies involved in the approval are Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Protection. County commissions were also involved with the approval.

But to truly answer that question, it is important to mention the state of politics in Florida. Governor Rick Scott’s administration has not had a very good environmental record and many of the governing boards in the state are inundated with businessmen rather than properly qualified people. Conflicts of interest and corruption are endemic from top to bottom here. Further, Gov. Scott, who had financial interests in the pipeline company, withheld a scathing EPA report that could have shut the project down. I am also told that many of the environmental impact statements were filed with incomplete or decades-old data—especially in regards to sinkholes—which is a great source of concern.

   
CM: Since this pipeline is so destructive, why did it get approved by those agencies?

AD: Very simple answer: the politics of this state are such that business comes before the environment. Period. Most of the risk studies for these projects are conducted with the financial bottom line in mind, not the human cost or the long-term ramifications. Our state is so inundated with cronyism and paid-for politicians that it’s actually quite easy for these destructive projects to be approved. Florida is not alone in this either. As friendly as the Obama administration may have seemed towards the environment, the hydrocarbon lobby in D.C. is very strong and we’ve seen similar whistling-in-the-dark at the federal level as well; that’s probably not going to get any better anytime soon. So the semantics of the word “destructive” is contingent upon the perspective—what is objectively destructive to the environment might not be subjectively destructive when the bottom line is the top priority. There is a disturbing saturation of corporate money in government here in Florida and around the country, and especially here our representatives continue to eviscerate our environmental protections to pander to their interests.

  
CM: What can people do to stop this pipeline?

Sadly, the pipeline construction is well on its way, but there are still some things that can be done to combat its progress, as well as become more enabled to resist similar projects in the future. They can call, email or even Twitter their representatives from the local level all the way up to the federal level. Please note that phone calls are known to be the most effective method of contact. They can support the action camps—Sacred Water Camp and Water Is Life Camp—which can be found on Facebook by searching them by name. They can donate supplies, money or skills based on whatever the current need is. They can support the Standing Rock movement. They can also take part in non-violent, peaceful demonstrations, including one coming up this weekend Jan. 14-15th near Live Oak, FL. Here’s a big one: they can divest their money from banks that are invested in hydrocarbons and other destructive industries and open local credit union accounts, many of which have better rates and ownership benefits. They can become more involved in local politics. They can talk to their family and friends about the importance of clean water and a clean environment. They can modify their lifestyles to one that is less hydrocarbon-dependent and more water-friendly. They can get involved with their own local water issues—this isn’t a localized problem. There are many ways to be involved.

  
CM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AD: The Sabal Trail Pipeline represents a $3.2 billion investment into a moribund commodity that we should see decline significantly within the next decade,. It is an infrastructural project with a short-term purpose that poses a long-term threat to the state’s sensitive ecosystem and aquifer. With the plummeting cost of solar electricity combined with the abundance of the solar rays here in the “Sunshine State,” this pipeline makes zero sense for our citizens—especially with other clean energy sources becoming more economically viable. There are also fears that the pipeline could be re-appropriated for other liquid and gas transport—most alarmingly water. Our aquifer already faces a severe over-use issue, so any further leaching from our water supply could be disastrous; consider also that aquifer depletion is the primary anthropogenic cause of sinkholes. Every way you look at it, it’s bad news for everyone except for the hydrocarbon industry, their investors and the politicians who are greased with their money. So our long-term solution begins with more environmentally-conscious politicians who understand the importance our our state’s most precious resources and a better informed body politic. Together, we can build a future that can be passed on to the next generation in good conscience.

Adam Dubbin

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