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Pipeline dangers worry local residents

Brian Fahrenthold, state government affairs director for Spectra Energy, assured Dougherty County officials at a Sept. 16 meeting that the company would use all safety measures in constructing a natural gas pipeline expected to run under part of the county. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Brian Fahrenthold, state government affairs director for Spectra Energy, assured Dougherty County officials at a Sept. 16 meeting that the company would use all safety measures in constructing a natural gas pipeline expected to run under part of the county. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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A proposed 465-mile Alabama-to-Florida natural gas pipeline is expected to run through 21 miles of Dougherty County if approved by federal officials. (Special illustration)

ALBANY — As local stakeholders prepare for an “early October” public hearing with representatives of Spectra Energy to discuss the planned 465-mile Alabama-to-Florida natural gas pipeline that is expected to run through Southwest Georgia, including 21 miles in Dougherty County, a growing sense of unease continues to build.

Local landowners contacted by the Houston-based energy company seeking access to their property say they’re disturbed about reports of “significant incidents” associated with the 19,000 miles of pipeline managed by Spectra and pipeline systems controlled by other similar companies. Some point to “dangers” they feel are inherent in such projects.

“I know these people are in the business of making money, and our concerns mean little to them,” said an area resident contacted by Spectra, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal. “But no matter how safe they say this pipeline is, I will always wonder. There are just so many things that can go wrong. What they’ll do if they run this thing close to my land is permanently destroy my peace of mind.”

Among the concerns listed by a growing number of local landowners are the potential for contamination of the county’s underground drinking water supply, noise levels generated by compression stations used to push the gas along its route, pollutants released into the air, the potential for deadly explosions, the potential for release of radioactive radon and other toxic gases, threats to protected wildlife and wetlands, and the threat of terrorism along the route of the pipeline.

These concerns remain topics of conversation despite assurances from Spectra officials that the pipeline poses little danger for propertyowners along the route.

“We adhere to very stringent safety standards; we have an outstanding record,” Spectra spokeswoman Andrea Grover told The Herald during a recent interview. “We take into account all safety standards imposed by local, state and federal agencies, and we will meet and exceed all of them. Safety is a very important part of our research and surveying processes.

“We do our homework. We understand what’s on the surface and the subsurface of all the land along the route of our pipeline system. Our work is done by the best of the best.”

Brian Fahrenthold, the director of state and local government affairs for the $3 billion Alabama-to-Florida pipeline that has been dubbed the Sabal Trail Transmission project, offered assurances to landowners and local government officials at a presentation before the Dougherty County Commission Sept. 16. In particular, Fahrenthold said Spectra would look to locate a compression station as far away from residential property as possible.

“We put these compression stations about every 100 miles along a pipeline route, and, yes, the current plan calls for one to be located near Dougherty County,” Fahrenthold said. “But we always try to mitigate building anything near a residential area. We think we’ll be able to find a minimally invasive route.”

Residents in Bedford County’s Monroe Township in eastern Pennsylvania are still looking for answers about what Spectra officials at first denied and later admitted was the release of methane and other hydrocarbons at a compressor site there March 9. That, one local citizen says, is why she’s particularly concerned.

“Those compressors are significant buildings with the capacity to impact a large area,” the resident, who also asked that she remain anonymous, said. “Even if there are no problems, they’re noisy. But it’s been well-documented that these things are potentially dangerous.”

Other concerned local citizens offer copies of reports that they say make a pipeline like the Sabal Trail project potentially hazardous:

— A list of 82 “significant pipeline incidents” in 2011 resulting in $95 million in property damage, as listed by the federal Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration;

— A Feb. 23 pipeline explosion in Kansas City that killed one and led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report, “The explosion was a tragic event that stemmed from errors on behalf of the (company managing the pipeline).”

— Pipeline explosions this year in Taylor County, W.Va.; Goldsmith, Texas; and Springfield, Mass.;

— A natural gas leak last month from an Atlanta Gas Light pipeline that ruptured;

— The 2010 San Bruno, Calif., natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight, leveled 35 homes and carved out a crater that officials in the California city said was 167 feet long and four stories deep.

“That’s the kind of thing that worries me,” a local resident said. “Certainly things like this may never happen, and I have no doubt that Spectra will use all safety measures available to them. But these things do happen, and they happen quite a bit. And that makes a lot of us whose land is along that pipeline route very uneasy.”