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Large crowd takes pipeline concerns to federal officials at Albany meeting

Scott Marini, an art professor at Albany State University, discusses a proposed natural gas pipeline with Sabal Trail officials at a federal scoping meeting held Monday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Scott Marini, an art professor at Albany State University, discusses a proposed natural gas pipeline with Sabal Trail officials at a federal scoping meeting held Monday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Environmental Biologist John Peconom addresses a crowd of around 150 that gathered Monday for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearing in Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Gerry Hall was one of more than 20 residents who directed concerns about a natural gas pipeline to federal officials during a public meeting Monday. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Dr. Steve Wilder expresses concerns about the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline during a meeting in Albany Monday. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Melvin George discusses a map that shows the proposed route of a natural gas pipeline that will go through Dougherty County. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — While others pondered and expounded on the complexities of the proposed 460-mile Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline projected to run through a large portion of south Dougherty County, Melvin George’s take on the controversial project was one of simplicity.

“Here’s the shortest route, the one that makes the most sense: Come down directly from where the pipeline originates (near Alexander City, Ala.) to the Florida state line,” south Dougherty resident George, one of some 20 residents who spoke during a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission scoping meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn Monday evening, said. “Then let the pipeline run along the Gulf (of Mexico) and down (to Osceola County, Florida).

“There’s no need for that pipeline to come through Dougherty County and no reason for it to come through Georgia at all. We don’t need it. It has no value to this community.”

George made his comments during the first of 13 public scoping meetings being conducted by FERC representatives. Two others are planned in Georgia, three in Alabama and seven in Florida before the federal agency rules on certification of the project, which has drawn the ire of conservationists, farmers and landowners all along the proposed pathway of the pipeline. If the project moves forward as scheduled, it would go online in May of 2017 and deliver up to a million cubic feet of natural gas per day.

“This is not a done deal, not an approved project,” FERC Environmental Biologist John Peconom told the crowd of some 150 who came from all over Southwest Georgia and north Florida to the meeting. “We will soon go into the environmental review process, and I can assure you economic, environmental, water concerns and legal issues will all be part of the discussion.

“Understand, this is not FERC’s project. We are presenting to you what (Sabal Trail principals) have presented to us. The concerns we have to date include agricultural impact, land use, pipeline integrity, water quality, fish and wildlife, and cultural resources. What you say here tonight will become part of the official record and will become part of the discussion during the eventual permitting process.”

A number of individual citizens and environmental groups have sprung up to oppose the pipeline, and many of them were at Monday’s meeting.

“Sabal seems to have abandoned alternate routes all together because of cost issues,” Gerry Hall said. “But for most of us here, if the pipeline has to come through Georgia, an alternate route is preferable. We’re the most populous area along the proposed route, followed by Valdosta. A route that would redirect the pipeline away from these urban areas would touch significantly fewer people.

“And the plan to locate (one of five) compressor stations less than a half-mile away as the crow flies from a well field that pumps 14 million gallons of water into the community a day is not well-advised.”

Outgoing Dougherty County Commissioner Gloria Gaines, who plans to run for the commission chairmanship, said the location of that compressor station concerns residents throughout the county.

“Highway 91 is a gateway corridor into our community,” she said. “Having a compressor station there right by that highway makes no sense at all. We don’t need to see this project come in and further depress our economy.”

Sabal Trail spokeswoman Andrea Grover said the questions asked by citizens at the scoping meetings will be considered by the company as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as a final path for the pipeline is considered.

“We’re here to listen,” Grover said Monday. “We’ll have two weeks from the close of the scoping period (April 20) to give formal answers to any questions that arise. We’ll answer those questions and do anything else we need to do to help them write their Environmental Impact Statement.

“We’ve looked at numerous routes for the pipeline. We’re utilizing 12 resource reports to determine if there is a need for an alternate route. Some of those reports are already up on our website (www.sabaltrail.com), and the others will be up as soon as they’re available. We’re looking at all alternative routes that are presented.”

Dougherty County Attorney Spencer Lee was the first to speak during the public comments session at Monday’s meeting, and he quickly set the tone for the evening.

“A little while ago John (Peconom) said, ‘I’m from Washington, D.C., and I don’t know Southwest Georgia,’” Lee said. “I submit that Sabal Trail and Spectra Energy don’t know Southwest Georgia well either, certainly not as well as these people you’ll hear from tonight.”

Lee’s comment drew loud applause.

Dr. Steve Wilder said he and his wife, Debra, were concerned that, while the pipeline is not projected to come directly onto their land, they as “abutters” should have been included among those provided information about the project by Sabal Trail.

“They didn’t contact us; we read about it in The Albany Herald,” Wilder said. “No, the pipeline is not projected to come onto our land, but it’s 80 feet from our well and 50 feet from our property line. And we’ve read that the blast radius of a pipeline explosion is 800 feet, so, yes, we are impacted because our land abuts land along the pipeline trail.

“We’re concerned about the safety of our family, the value of our property and our drinking water, but it appears that (Sabal Trail officials) are only interested in doing this project as cheaply as possible.”

Deena Grimsley of Webster County asked FERC officials how her farm family would be compensated when construction of the pipeline disrupts planting or gathering of their crops.

“If we’re in our fields during planting time or during gathering time, what are they going to do for us to make up for the crops we’ll lose?” Grimsley said. “Because they sure aren’t going to plan their construction schedule around our farming schedule.

“This plan is not beneficial to the people of Georgia and it’s not necessary.”

Terrell County property owner Lauren Callis said responsibility for the pipeline should not be placed on Georgia residents.

“We’re worried about the long-term safety of this pipeline,” she said. “And we’re concerned that this thing is being built on the backs of the people of Georgia, on the backs of our children. Because I can promise you, not one person in this room cares if the lights go off in Florida.”