Dakota Pipeline Stalled by Protests While Another Begins in Alabama


Route of new gas pipeline through Alabama. Source: Sabal Trail Transmission
Route of new gas pipeline through Alabama. Source: Sabal Trail Transmission

On Sunday, December 4, one pipeline was stopped in North Dakota.  The next day, workers began putting another pipeline in the ground in east Alabama.

That’s where, with little apparent opposition, the 515-mile Sabal Trail Transmission Pipeline will transport natural gas from an existing pipeline in Tallapoosa County through southeast Georgia to supply energy for growing needs in central Florida.

Environmental groups are now assessing whether successful nonviolent protest strategies used at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline might be transferrable to the South.

The Sabal Trail owners have swatted away one legal challenge after another from environmental groups. The court hurdle remaining will come in the spring, just weeks before the pipeline’s announced completion date of June 1.

Cheers went up from the Dakota pipeline protest site when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was denying a permit that would have allowed drilling under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water supply and sacred sites. For the moment, at least, victory belonged to a united front of indigenous tribes from around the country, joined by other supporters, including several hundred veterans of the armed services.

In Alabama, the Cahaba Riverkeeper organization and the international organization it is part of,  hope the action means stiffening opposition to all new pipelines.

” ‘No new pipelines’ is the intent,” said Myra Crawford, executive director of the environmental advocacy group, Cahaba Riverkeeper. “Pipelines may be the safest way to deliver dangerous gas and oil, but eventually they will fail and cause toxic leaks, injuries and deaths, so for the sake of our future we believe we must help move the nation away from using fossil fuels and support the rapid transition to sustainable fuels.”

The Dakota Access victory may be temporary, as President-elect Donald Trump expressed support for the completion of that pipeline, according to Reuters news service last week. Jim Hall, former director of the National Transportation and Safety Board, also thinks the Trump team wants to overturn the Corps’ decision. “I don’t anticipate the pipeline owners will let [the Army Corps ruling] stop them from building if they have an opportunity to reverse this under a Trump administration,” Hall said.

Crawford said pipeline opponents are assessing how a Trump presidency would affect pipeline-approval processes. They also are discussing whether the strategies used to stop the Dakota pipeline could be used successfully against the Sabal Trail and other proposed pipelines.

David Poule, executive director of Greenlaw, an environmental law firm in Atlanta, said it’s “too soon to tell” whether stopping the Dakota pipeline will translate to greater resistance to the Sabal Trail project.

The pipeline would carry natural gas from an existing pipeline in Alabama’s Tallapoosa County through Lee, Chambers and Russell counties and under the Chattahootchee River bordering Georgia. It would go through the Flint River watershed in that state and continue into central Florida to fuel generators there for energy needs.

In September Greenlaw, representing the Sierra Club, Georgia’s Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and the Flint Riverkeeper in that state, filed suit in the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, to stop construction contending lack of an environmental impact statement that includes “full public input and analysis,” Poule said. “That’s what the Army Corps announced it would do as it considers alternate routes for the Dakota pipeline, so we are eagerly awaiting that impact statement so we can evaluate it against the Sabal Trail’s.”

The appellate court denied the request for an immediate halt in construction but will hear the case in the spring, the firm said. By that time the pipeline will be within weeks of its expected completion date of June 1.

The pipe began to go into the ground this week throughout the pipeline route, following preliminary construction that started in September, according to Andrea Grover, spokesperson for Sabal Trail LLC and the project owners, Spectra Energy.

Opposition to the Dakota pipeline grew over the past few months as the Standing Rock tribe said the pipeline endangered its drinking water and sacred sites, and sought to stop it. All major tribes joined the effort, according to Crawford.

The international Waterkeeper Alliance also endorsed the protests and drew support from Alabama. John Wathen, the Hurricane Creekkeeper in Tuscaloosa County, has been part of the protests for many weeks. “John is nationally known for his passion for the earth and his skill as a photographer and writer,” Crawford said. “For a while he was one of the few there who was documenting the protest and able to put it on his blog.”

Eight Waterkeeper Alliance groups are charged with monitoring and protecting Alabama waterways. They are the Black Warrior, Cahaba, Choctawhachee, Coosa, and Tennessee riverkeepers, Little River Waterkeeper, Hurricane Creekkeeper, and Mobile Baykeeper.

Protests against the Sabal Trail project have risen in number recently in Georgia and Florida. Greenlaw’s Poule  said, “We have garnered a great deal of support from the Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of more than 200 organizations,” he said.

While news reports of protests emerge almost daily, nearly all accounts are of individuals or small groups advocating against the pipeline.  Grover acknowledged a small number of “slowdowns” in construction because of protests.

“I fully respect protesters’ right to peacefully protest in public spaces if not impeding our work. They are concerned about the environment and the river crossings, and we understand that. But we have our best safety management practices, all approved by the permitting agencies, in place to ensure we’re doing this right.”

Will indigenous tribes in the affected states be factor in protests? Grover thinks Sabal Trail’s inclusion of a tribal monitor in the project indicates how sensitive the corporation is to those issues. “We have been in consultations with the various Native American tribes we identified early on. We have allowed time for them to consult with us and provide comments,” she said.

“The tribal monitor is fully on the project overseeing the work we’re doing. And if they see anything they have concerns with, we have direct dialogue to address anything in real time.”

Veterans are another potential factor going forward.  Amid significant publicity, hundreds of veterans joined the Dakota pipeline protests in its late stages, Crawford said, “I was monitoring the protest site by internet and heard veterans planning to leave Standing Rock say they were “heading to the Flint (River).’ Now we have to wait and see if that happens and they do get involved in the Sabal Trail project.”