Anita Stewart is worried.
Stewart lives in Ridge Manor, Florida, 18 miles away from the Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline, a 515-mile project that would funnel methane across three states. In her area and others, she’s observed, the pipeline is being constructed close to schools and hubs of apartment buildings.
Stewart, an environmental activist, thinks the state governments who worked with federal agencies to approve and regulate the pipeline sold out these communities to corporations. The result, she said, is that “our children become collateral.”
The Sabal pipeline—a project of Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy Inc., and Duke Energy—is nearing completion, with only a few central Florida segments, such as Stewart’s area, left to finish by its target end date of June. As Stewart noted, it frequently cuts through regions that are rural, low-income, or predominantly populated by people of color. And because of political and logistical reasons, many people in these areas don’t have access to comprehensive reproductive health care, meaning that some potential ill effects from the pipeline may go untreated.
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Possible Pipeline Dangers
According to a 2017 study by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) titled “Too Dirty, Too Dangerous,” pipelines that transport natural gas and their compression stations “can leak, exposing distant populations to dangerous substances that travel through the pipelines along with the methane; these include, notably, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and radon and its radioactive decay products.”
Research around environmental pipelines initially focused on the effects of fracking sites, where gas is extracted from the earth. But through reports like PSR’s, it’s become clear that “a growing body of scientific evidence documents leaks of methane, toxic volatile organic compounds and particulate matter throughout this infrastructure.”
Natural gas pipelines are subject to leaks and can have “blowdowns,” a term for the venting of gas and toxic chemicals that can cause adverse birth outcomes and health problems. As the PSR report states, between 1996 and 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “recorded 858 serious incidents, with 347 fatalities (more than 17 each year) and 1,346 injuries” involving natural gas pipelines exploding or leaking. Even minor environmental exposure to chemicals present in fracked natural gas—such as endocrine disruptors—may, over time, lead to reproductive issues and other problems.
Compressor stations, meanwhile, maintain the pressure of pipelines and are fueled by natural gas. These stations can “leak methane and carbon dioxide” along with other chemicals “as they burn the gas,” the PSR report states. “They also leak methane through compressor seals, valves, and connections and through the deliberate venting that is conducted during operations and maintenance.” The presence of compression stations, in particular, have shown risks of “preterm births, low birth weight, and infant mortality,” as well as “increased school absences, emergency room visits and hospital admissions.”
In short, a potential health nightmare, and one that extends through generations.
“Kids are getting out on their bus stops where people are digging in Kissimmee,” said an activist in Brevard County, Florida, referring to a compression station in nearby Osceola County. The activist, who did not wish to be identified, continued, “There are no signs. I’m afraid a curious kid will fall in a hole or get hurt by the chemicals being used.”
Panagioti Tsolkas, a resident of Alachua County, Florida, noted that he’s seen in the town of Newberry that “residential areas [are] being exposed to the pipeline.” Tsolkas further noted that the pipeline was placed close to “a bus route for kids.”
As activists have pointed out, individuals without financial resources who might experience reproductive health consequences from the pipeline, such as those outlined in the PSR report, may not have many places to turn.
In Florida, for example, there are 320 so-called safety net health-care providers of family planning services to low-income patients. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 62 are in counties along the proposed pipeline route in the state, and they are largely clustered around urban hubs. In fact, 38 are in Orange County and Polk County, where the pipeline cuts through a very small area. Only five of the state’s 22 Planned Parenthood clinics—which Guttmacher classifies as safety-net providers—are in the affected counties.
This issue of access is compounded by the fact that the Florida government refused to expand Medicaid in 2015; it has also attempted to defund Planned Parenthood. Thus, access to reproductive health care in the face of an environmental toxin crisis becomes a question of both distance and cost. Alabama and Georgia have similar, if not identical, issues.
Bronson, Florida, where environmentalist Laura Catlow lives, is an indicative example of the plight many in the region face.
The closest federally qualified health center is around 12 miles away, accessible only by highway. As Catlow pointed out, although the public health department performs Pap smears and provides birth control, it refers patients to Gainesville for mammograms and other services. “There are a few private doctors every ten miles, and then Gainesville is 20 miles away,” she said.
In essence: Poor women or uninsured women in Bronson without a car or reliable access to transportation can’t regularly get to a gynecologist or reproductive health clinic, in a rural town where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line.
Catlow lives a mile away from the pipeline; she is concerned that the project could affect property values. If that happens, she fears, tax-funded programs like the health department “will suffer and we will lose services and become a ghost town or dump.”
In turn, she predicts, clinics that do serve rural and relatively underpopulated areas could be overwhelmed or unable to adequately address an influx of reproductive health issues caused by a natural gas pipeline.
Even if one is able to access a car to drive to a county that has adequate reproductive health care, rural citizens attempting to leave the town due to an environmental emergency may still have issues. Ellen Webb, the energy program associate of the Center for Environmental Health, informed Rewire that “since 1986, there have been around 300 incidents involving natural gas pipelines a year. Accidents, spills, and explosions occur, and are often result from a lack of oversight or regulation. There is a constant risk of explosions.”
She repeated again: “There are a substantial number of incidents.”
As Laura Catlow noted, “I’m still in the incineration zone, and in terms of our highway evacuation in case of any explosion or breach … there’s only one way to get out. Me personally, from my house I have one road I can go to get out of here. Some people here don’t have a way to get out of here. We’re kind of surrounded here.”
In a statement provided to Rewire, Andrea D. Grover, the director of stakeholder outreach for Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, said, “Sabal Trail is dedicated to the safe, reliable operation of facilities and the protection of the public, the environment and our employees. Natural gas pipelines monitor and control safety in many ways and use many different tools. Collectively, these tools make natural gas transmission pipelines one of the safest forms of energy transportation.”
“Our safety programs are designed to prevent pipeline failures, detect anomalies, perform repairs and often exceed regulatory requirements. Once the facilities are placed in service, we will implement operations procedures designed to monitor the pipeline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we maintain the facilities per applicable federal and state regulations,” she continued.
“The new pipeline will operate in strict accordance with all federal and state safety requirements. Sabal Trail will work closely with local public safety officials to provide them with a thorough awareness of our pipelines and pipeline safety,” she concluded.
Resistance: “People Are Scared”
Starting last year, the Sabal pipeline drew protests in the affected states due to health problems it may cause, as well as environmental and financial concerns. This resistance has included actions from the Florida Seminole community, who note that the pipeline goes through parts of traditionally Seminole and Miccosukee land. Water defender camps have sprung up along the pipeline, and towns ranging in size from Dunnellon to Orlando have resisted in protests and marches.
However, residents say they still encounter a sense of hopelessness or resignation from others.
People in affected areas often “feel like there’s nothing that they can do,” said Carmella Guiol, of Tampa, Florida, who has been involved with documenting the pipeline’s construction. Because the pipeline has “gone through a lot of back-roads,” rural places, she said, residents feel like they are being ignored or aren’t connected enough with other towns to organize.
When Catlow tried to host a forum for concerned citizens in rural areas, she said, only “12 people came”—although she put up fliers for hundreds of miles around Central and West Florida.
Stewart spent time in Kissimmee, documenting the pipeline’s construction through the town, and said of her time there, if “you talk to people on the street they have no idea what it is for, and what it is and what it could do for them.” This means the same town that has the pipeline going by children’s bus stops might not know that residents may be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.
“People feel helpless when they see the pipeline. They crawl back into their holes and don’t come back,” sighed Catlow. “It’s just horrible …. People are scared. People are anxious. When I see people who are now feeling the effects of this [fear] in their neighborhoods in Dunnellon, my heart goes out to them. You can see the desperation and the helplessness.”
Despite the hurdles, though, many activists who document the pipeline are now training others in their community to observe damages from the pipeline or possible code violations. Catlow said that “since November 2016, [I’ve been going out] with citizens and I train them how to do violation reporting on the ground. Where the Sabal pipeline is crossing public roads, we are able to go down and observe.”
“Once the pipeline is in, there seems to be very little oversight. There’s no monitoring,” Catlow said, in contrast to the statement from the Sabal representative.
“Even during construction, it’s been up to citizens finding code violations. For example, in Georgia, citizens found that the Sabal pipeline was leaking mud into rivers …. The companies don’t seem to be aware of the environmental problems being created,” said Goiul.
For his part, Tsolkas said he has “identified issues like ‘frack out‘ and contaminated water” and said other observers “have noted sinkholes new in proximity to pipeline construction activity.”
“The more people know about this, the better,” said Guiol.