Mass sit-in targets controversial Sabal Trail Pipeline at Suwannee River

Published January 13 2017
Updated January 13 2017

The clash over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota — and the success opponents have had temporarily blocking it — has inspired a Florida group opposed to a controversial new pipeline cutting through North Florida. They're planning to hold a major protest this weekend.

Construction has already begun on the $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, a 515-mile conduit for natural gas that when completed will snake through Alabama, Georgia and Florida. At 268 miles, the Florida section is the longest, and will involve drilling beneath the state's most famous river, the Suwannee.

The protest, which formally begins with a sit-in on Saturday, was scheduled for this weekend because that's when the drilling under the Suwannee is supposed to begin, said Panagioti Tsolkas, former editor of the Earth First! Journal and an organizer of the Sabal Trail Resistance group. The fact that it's also the start of the weekend celebrating civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a bit of serendipity, he said.

Their goals, according to their Facebook group, is "putting a wrench into the gears of the pipeline machine" with a mass sit-in.

Although smaller protests have been going on in that area for months, only 16 people have been arrested so far, he said. This new protest may lead to far more arrests. So far 6,000 people from all over the country have signaled an interest in joining the protest via its Facebook page, he said — including Dakota Access protest veterans from Standing Rock, he said.

"We will plan to avoid the risk of felony charges, and anticipate any arrested will be released by the following morning," the group organizing the protest says on their Facebook page.

Among those arrested already: St. Petersburg resident Katherine "K.C." Cavanaugh, 33, who has hiked — and sometimes danced — along 250 miles of the pipeline's Florida route. When asked why she danced, she said "I wanted to give back to the Earth."

But she said she was neither hiking nor dancing when she was arrested last month in Gilchrist County.

Cavanaugh was helping escort some reporters along a public road near the construction site to take photos when she said a deputy ordered her to stop and hand over her driver's license. When she asked why, she said she was again told to hand over the license. A third try asking why, she said, resulted in her arrest for obstruction.

"We weren't even protesting," said Cavanaugh, who said she ended up spending the night in jail in the small town of Trenton, near Gainesville. Prosecutors there did not respond to a request for comment regarding the fate of her case and her fellow defendants.

Sabal Trail opponents have also held smaller protests in St. Petersburg and four other cities across the state, just as opponents in the other states affected by the pipeline have picketed the project.

The Sabal Trail pipeline is designed to deliver 1 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas a day from the Marcellus Shale to power plants, some of which formerly burned polluting coal. While burning natural gas admits large amounts of carbon dioxide, it's cleaner than burning coal.

However, the use of fracking to extract the gas has been blamed for polluting nearby waterways. It's also been blamed for an increase in earthquakes, such as the magnitude 5.6 temblor that hit central Oklahoma last September, prompting the state to order 37 fracking disposal wells to be shut down.

The pipeline would be the third major line to bring gas into the state. Florida's large utilities say the line is necessary to meet the growing demand for natural gas, which runs many of their power plants. The line crosses into Florida in northern Hamilton County, just north of Suwannee River State Park, and continues southward through Central Florida counties, including Citrus and Polk.

Along the way, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, building the pipeline will require destroying 900 acres of wetlands. The company building it, Spectra Energy, has promised to make up for the destruction, mostly by buying credits from privately-run wetland mitigation banks that have preserved or restored wetlands elsewhere.

"Wherever possible, the new pipeline follows existing rights-of-way to substantially limit environmental impacts and effects to landowners," Spectra spokeswoman Andrea Grover said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued the pipeline a permit to destroy the Florida wetlands a year ago, and the Army Corps of Engineers followed suit in August. The work has also been cleared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"The environmental impacts of this project have been determined by FERC not to be significant," Grover pointed out.

Opponents strongly disagree. Several organizations, including the Sierra Club, have gone to court to overturn the permits. Much of the route takes the pipeline through the area where many of Florida's springs are, and they contend a leak or spill could be disastrous. They also cite concerns that construction could cause sinkholes, a frequent hazard in Florida's karst terrain.

Opponents of the pipeline blame a sinkhole that opened up in Osceola County last month on Sabal Trail construction 2,000 feet away. A number of families had to be evacuated from a condominium complex affected by the December sinkhole in the Kissimmee area.

However, Grover said, that sinkhole "is nearly a ½ mile away from the pipeline route and is not attributable to Sabal Trail's construction as the opposition promotes."

She noted that a pipeline has a much smaller construction footprint than highways, which have also been built through that area, and added: "In the highly unlikely event that a sinkhole opens beneath the pipeline, the pipeline can safely span distances that exceed 100 feet."

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.