Sabal Trail Pipeline Threatens Underwater Caverns


Jacksonville Channel 10 News Ann Schindler reports here on Sabal Trail and the threat it brings to our underground river system.

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

Florida’s DAPL? Pipeline progress in Suwanee County

At the bottom of a sinkhole in north central Florida is an opening to an alternate universe. Fast-flowing springs run through an endless matrix of underground conduits and caves.

One in particular has grabbed the attention of team of divers from Karst Underwater Research, a Florida nonprofit that maps the state’s Swiss-cheeselike network of water filled caverns.

Their current project is the Suwanee County cave known as “line eater” – so named for ravages wreaked on the divers’ guideline by the intense spring flow.

“It’s got the potential to be the longest cave system in the world,” says Andrew Pitkin, whose team has mapped 20,000 feet of cave.“We just haven’t explored it that far yet. So it’s an extremely important cave system.”

It’s also quite close to the Sabal Trail pipeline, a 500-mile, 3-foot thick steel line from Alabama to Orlando which will eventually carry 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day. Both “line eater” and the pipeline crisscross property owned by Jacksonville attorney Tom Edwards.

A lifelong hunter and outdoorsman, Edwards bought the property in 2013, for its proximity to the Suwanee River and what he thought were conservation protections on the land.

But in 2014, he received notice that a private, for-profit energy company planned to take portions of his property– and hundreds of others – through eminent domain. The consortium, made up of  Spectra Energy of Houston, Texas, FPL’s parent company NextEra Energy, and Duke Energy, was also going to use directional drilling to bore under three major water bodies: the Withlacoochee River in Georgia, and the Sante Fe and Suwanee rivers in Florida.

“I was shocked at first,” says Edwards. “I was certain with the conservation easement and the [Suwanee] State Park involved, we’d get it stopped. And of course it didn’t get stopped.”

The land Edwards dubbed “Echo River Plantation” is dotted with sinkholes and so-called “karst windows” – spots where you can actually see into the springs that feed the Floridan Aquifer. The entire parcel has a conservation easement on it, meaning it can never be developed for any purpose. And yet, bulldozers are currently trenching through his land, making way for the Sabal Trail pipeline.

“Florida has more springs per square mile than anywhere in the world — and this area of Florida has more springs than anywhere in Florida,” says Edwards. “And for them to be putting all the pipeline thru that — how are they going to keep this fragile system from collapsing? There is a high risk of collapsing some of it.”

That’s exactly what the federal Environmental Protection Agency said.

In a strongly worded October 2015 letter, the EPA cited “very significant concerns” about the pipeline, including potential damage to the Floridan Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to the entire state, as well as the risk of damaging, even diverting rivers.

The EPA noted there were other, less risky routes that would avoid the state’s fragile springs system.
But the project had the support of Gov. Rick Scott. He signed a bill — twice — to speed up its approval, oversaw regulators who signed off on it, and even at one point owned a stake in the company picked to build the $3 billion pipeline. Scott has previously noted that investment was held by a blind trust.

“The executive branch was inviting of this type of thing,” says Edwards.

Two months after it raised objections to the project, after meeting with pipeline officials, EPA reversed itself.

Drilling — now underway in three states — hasn’t been without problems. Earlier this month in Georgia, drilling mud leaked into the Withlacoochee River from drilling operations below. It’s exactly what project opponents feared.

“The complexity of these waterways, the interconnections, the fragility,” says Edwards. “It’s what we’ve been warning about.”

Sabal Trail spokesperson Andrea Grover said in a statement that the company is using “proactive best management practices and contingency plans should any drilling mud unintentionally be released during the directional drilling process,” and noted the leak didn’t pose a threat to human health. She did not directly address the question of whether the intrusion was an indication that drilling could penetrate protected waterways.

With legal challenges exhausted, Edwards is resigned to the pipeline destroying part of his land. He hopes that’s as bad as it gets.

“It’s going through,” he says. “The only way going to get stopped is if there is truly some environmental disaster that forces them to stop. And we all hope that’s not going to happen.”

Protests continue Saturday at the Guy Lemmon Boat ramp in Live Oak.


  1. This is disgraceful. Our water for drinking and our tourism which is much of the state income would be seriously jeapordized in the event of a leak, never mind a serious breach.

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