Pipeline route under Santa Fe River being shifted westward
Published: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 at 6:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 at 6:41 p.m.
When geologist David Brown learned that a proposed natural gas pipeline might cross beneath the Santa Fe River near his family's property, he developed a report in his free time detailing the problems with that plan.
Brown wasn't the only one to oppose that route, which he said would cross beneath the river in an area more susceptible to collapse, and advocate for what he considered a better alternative, known as the Gilchrist westerly route. Local residents and environmental groups spoke up as well, and it appears their concerns weren't ignored.
Sabal Trail Transmission, which Florida Power & Light selected to build an almost 500-mile-long, 3-foot-wide pipeline from Alabama down to a Central Florida hub, has decided the Gilchrist westerly route should be the pipeline's preferred path.
Sabal Trail, a joint venture of Spectra Energy Corp. and NextEra Energy, FPL's parent company, previously planned for the pipeline to cross the Santa Fe around 0.7 miles downstream from where the Ichetucknee River empties into the Santa Fe.
Now, the company instead wants to upgrade the Gilchrist westerly route, which Brown and others advocated for, to its primary option.
Following the western route, the pipeline would still cross beneath the Santa Fe but would do so along an existing pipeline corridor where a Florida Gas Transmission pipeline already runs under the river.
Brown credited the collective efforts of everybody who advocated for the western route for helping persuade Sabal Trail to switch paths, although he said they are still waiting for the modification to officially be made.
"It's very encouraging," Brown told The Sun. "Everyone's very happy, but I just want to see the evidence of it."
This is the way the process should work: openly and collaboratively, he said. There must be public input so all concerns can be brought to the table, he said.
Brown and his family are ecstatic about the route change.
"I will never look at that segment of the river the same again," he said.
Sabal Trail spokeswoman Andrea Grover said the company took into account input from landowners, geologists, environmental groups, public officials and others when reviewing its options.
"I think it does help for people to realize that we're doing the homework. We are listening to folks," she said. "We are taking the subject-matter experts' opinions and data into consideration."
Sabal Trail determined the western route is more favorable in part because there are fewer landowners in that area, she said. Other positives for switching routes include a reduction in impacts to wetlands as well as to threatened and endangered species living in the area, such as sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises.
Also, Grover said the western path through this area would parallel existing utilities, meaning power lines or pipelines, almost 80 percent of the time, compared to just 20 percent of the time for the other Santa Fe River route.
Since other pipeline crossings have already been done in that area, Sabal Trail should be able to do the same successfully, she said.
Although Sabal Trail intends to make the western route its preferred route, Grover said that change won't show up right away in the documentation it submits to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which must approve the project before construction can start.
Switching the preferred route isn't as simple as changing the lines on a map.
The company still needs to shore up related data so it can shift the western route to preferred status, she said. No route will be official until FERC gives its OK.
Sabal Trail is also still considering another alternative path that the Gilchrist County Commission submitted, which would run through the Wacassassa Flats, she said, but it's in the early evaluation process.
Sabal Trail hopes to receive FERC's approval by either late 2015 or early 2016 so construction could begin in mid-2016.
Florida Southeast Connection, a subsidiary of FPL's parent company NextEra Energy, plans to build a pipeline that will run south from the Central Florida hub into Martin County. The entire system is expected to be operational by May 2017.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, president of Our Santa Fe River, said she is nervous about putting the pipeline along an existing corridor but said this path has already been vetted and would not impact area springs the way the prior Santa Fe route could have.
Although Sabal Trail does plan to switch to what her organization considers a more acceptable route, Malwitz-Jipson said Our Santa Fe River would ideally prefer the pipeline never be constructed at all.
"Our Santa Fe River doesn't believe that this is the best for the springs heartland and for the state of Florida," she said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.