Challenging the ‘Energy Empire’

Panagioti Tsolkas carries Zephyr while he and his partner, Cara Jennings, wait for other “water protectors” to join their protest against the Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline in Branford on Nov. 6, 2016. [ANDREA CORNEJO/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER]

Andrew Caplan’s series on Sabal Trail in the Gainesville Sun continues today Feb. 14, 2017 as he recounts professional protester, Panagioti Tsolkas’ struggle with Sabal Trail in Florida

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life:  once taken, it cannot be brought back-



Challenging the ‘energy empire’

Local protester highlights pipeline’s risk to environment

By Andrew Caplan

Staff writer

If there was ever such thing as a professional protester, Panagioti Tsolkas would be a wealthy man.

He isn’t paid to protest. He already has two jobs; he picks and washes vegetables at a farm and works at the Civic Media Center. But when not at work, Tsolkas, 36, can be found in a neighboring county with a megaphone in hand, leading a troop against potential environmentally-harmful activities.

His latest battle comes against Spectra Energy and its $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline. But to think of it as “just a pipeline,” he says, is too simple.

“I like to think of it as the energy empire,” Tsolkas said.

“This is a symbol of the power that runs the world at this point … In some ways, it’s a chance to defend the thing we love and fight the thing that’s the biggest and most evil on the planet.”

Tsolkas, also an organizer with Earth First!, said his first active protest came 20 years ago when he was in high school. Like many students, he said he dreaded the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). To voice that frustration, he and some friends jumped on tables and made a fuss about being treated like lab rats. The act got him kicked out of school and he didn’t go back.

From there, he went to California and got involved with an activist group that lived in trees to stop them from being cut down. It was there he learned the impact of direct action.

“You can either write letters and ask politicians politely to stop cutting trees down, or you can go sit in the trees and they get the message,” he said. “To me it felt like the closer you can engage with the actual problem you’re dealing with, the better result you’re going to get.”

Last year, Tsolkas moved to Gainesville. He said he began tracking the gas and transport industry before the move and began following the Sabal Trail pipeline before it even had a name. Tsolkas has filed numerous comments against an environmental impact study for the pipeline, attended meetings and met others directly impacted by the pipeline’s route.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he said, simply “rubber stamps” pipeline projects no matter the issues, and said its studies fall short by not exploring alternative methods for energy or anticipating changes in society.

He also believes energy should come from solar and wind.

“If you’re about (alternative sources of energy), you got to face off against the people who are trying to continue that old system.”

The path of the 515-mile pipeline, which stretches from Alabama to Central Florida, just nicks the outer southeast edges of Alachua County, but impacts several neighboring counties, such as Gilchrist, Levy and Marion.

Despite being in rural areas, the pipeline isn’t hard to find. The pipe itself is big and green. The construction is loud. The signs leadingup tothe sites say “caution,” “slow,” “road construction.” The easements are decorated with red-and-white poles connected by a string of colorful flags, resembling something at a carnival.

It’s as if they’re building a new access road in a forest, Tsolkas said. Based on conversations, Tsolkas said hundreds of people, who also attended public meetings, are unaware construction has started.

To do his part, Tsolkas has been traveling from Gainesville with others to construction sites actively demonstrating, protesting, and informing others how far they can legally push their First Amendment rights.

On Nov. 12, those limits were pushed in Branford and led to 14 arrests, including Tsolkas’, on felony trespassing charges. Although the arrests hindered some protesters from picking their signs back up, they inspired others to get involved, some traveling from North Dakota following the North Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which gained national attention.

Panagioti Tsolkas picks carrots with his partner, Cara Jennings, and their child, Zephyr, at Siembra Farm on Dec. 28, 2016, in Gainesville. [ANDREA CORNEJO/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER]
On Jan. 14, Tsolkas played an instrumental role in gathering hundreds of protesters in Live Oak to demonstrate their case in front of nearly 70 law enforcement officers.

“Changing this society isn’t just about being comfortable having a pleasant downtown atmosphere,” he said. “That’s a challenge for Gainesville, that you have to get out there past the county line and see what’s happening next door.”

He believes sinkholes are being downplayed by Sabal Trail representatives, who say they won’t threaten the Floridan aquifer.

According to Sabal Trail’s website, under the “common misconceptions” tab, “natural gas is lighter than air, which means in the highly unlikely event that natural gas escapes from the pipeline, the gas can only travel up through the soil into the atmosphere where it dissipates. Additionally, no toxins are released during the construction or operation of the Sabal Trail facilities that would affect water quality.”

Methane, which makes up about 95 percent of the natural gas in pipelines, is about 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Tsolkas, who believes sinkholes are a gateway to the Floridan aquifer, said a tiny leak in the pipeline could contaminate water — and plenty have opened up near construction sites in recent months.

“We’re basically at their discretion as to when we find out how much gas leaks into the water supply,” he said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection requires public notices for pollution incidents from responsible parties, imposing fines if not done so timely.

More than 93,000 people have signed a petition asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt construction of the pipeline and perform an environmental study. Following FERC’s approval of the pipeline, however, the Army Corps finalized its side of the permitting process to allow Spectra Energy, Duke Energy and, Florida Power and Light’s parent company, NextEra Energy to discharge of dredged-and-fill material into water bodies during construction.

Tsolkas said although the matter is not strongly impacting Gainesville, those concerned about wildlife, water quality and fracking should care.

Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated some 1,200 acres of wetlands would be destroyed or impacted during construction. The EPA later reduced that projection to less than 900 acres and later made a 180-degree turn and dropped “significant” environmental concerns over the project, including potential for sinkholes and whether damage to the aquifer had been downplayed by Sabal Trail and FERC.

“The issues of concern included potential impacts on forested lands, water resources including groundwater and springs, karst terrain, environmental justice, and compressor station noise,” said Craig Cano, a FERC spokesman. “All of these issues were addressed during the staff’s environmental review and summarized in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).”

Some experts say if a sinkhole opened beneath the pipeline, and a leak occurred, it would not likely affect the Floridan aquifer, although it is possible.

Anthony Randazzo, a retired geology professor at the University of Florida, said if a pipeline failure occurred in a recharge area for a body of water, then the chances of contamination increase.

He argues that putting a pipeline into the ground does not make sinkholes any more likely, though. Moreover, Sabal Trail officials have said the pipeline can withstand a 100-foot sinkhole opening beneath the pipeline without issues occurring.

Professional engineers and geologists plan the safest routes possible when routing pipelines, Randazzo said.

Still, Tsolkas isn’t buying it.

“It’s not a benign thing to have massive quantities of methane gas to be leaking into your water supply,” Tsolkas said. — Contact reporter Andrew Caplan at or on Twitter @AACaplan.


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