Congressmen: Proposed Pipeline Would Be An Environmental Justice Disaster

CREDIT: AP Photo/Todd Stone

Former Dougherty County commissioner Gloria Gaines, left, and current commissioner John Hayes discuss the proposed natural gas compressor site that would be near Gaines' home in Albany, Ga., Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. Gaines and Hayes are helping to lorganize and lead the opposition to a gas pipeline that is to run from Alabama to Florida, passing through Albany.

A proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the Southeast U.S. is raising environmental justice, health, and regulatory questions among representatives in one of the states it would affect.

Congressmen Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. John Lewis, Hank Johnson Jr., and David Scott — all of whom represent Georgia and are members of the Congressional Black Caucus — recently sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that raised concerns about the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline and accompanying compressor station. According to the letter, the pipeline and compressor station will “further burden an already overburdened and disadvantaged African-American community” in Dougherty County, Georgia. The congressmen are asking 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 516-mile-long, $3 billion natural gas pipeline is being proposed by Spectra Energy Corp. and NextEra Energy Inc., and would cut through Alabama, southern Georgia, and central Florida. The congressmen say in the letter that environmental justice concerns in those areas have not been fully taken in to consideration by FERC.

“Sabal Trail’s proposed route will go through Albany and Dougherty County and will run through low-income African-American neighborhoods,” the congressmen write. “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 would cross through nine counties in southwest Georgia, including Dougherty County, where approximately 72 percent of the population is African-American. According to the letter, the median household income is $28,871 for a family of four, with about 32 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

In southern Dougherty County, the congressmen write, communities are “overburdened by pollution with 259 hazardous waste facilities, 78 facilities producing and releasing air pollutants, 20 facilities releasing toxic pollutants, and 16 facilities releasing pollutants into the waters of the United States.” Cancer-related deaths are also 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 write in the 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.”

Environmental justice 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). A few days following the congressmen’s letter, the agency also raised concerns that the pipeline could have significant impacts on federally protected land, groundwater, and surface water. The EPA urged the FERC to order construction of the pipeline away from areas with increased risks of environmental harm. According to the EPA’s statement, FERC didn’t fully identify avoidance and mitigation measures. Sabal Trail’s public comment period is open until December 11, 2015.

Though natural gas emits less greenhouse gases from combustion compared to coal or oil, the drilling and extraction process of natural gas results in the leakage of methane, a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, technologies are available to reduce the leakage of methane, but implementing these technologies would require new policies and investments. 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 — as the congressmen’s letter points out — can be loud and disruptive for residents.

Congressman Sanford D., Bishop, Jr.’s letter follows suit to the uprising of religious leaders rallying against climate change and environmental injustices. Reverends, bishops, other church leaders and congregations have long fought against injustices and civil rights violations caused by the effects of climate change, and that are disproportionately felt by disadvantaged communities of color in the United States. This year’s papal encyclical has been credited with helping bring social and environmental justice issues to the forefront of faith-based communities, and the pope himself emphasized the urgency of these issues early on in his recent U.S. trip.