Sinkhole raises collapse concerns at pipeline drilling site

Concerns over pipeline

JACKSONVILLE - Protesters in North Dakota are celebrating news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will seek an alternate route for the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Closer to home, however, there are fresh concerns about a different pipeline.

According to a report filed by the Sabal Trail Transmission group, a sinkhole formed near the company’s drilling operations near the Withlacoochee River. This comes just two weeks after the company reported drilling mud polluted the river after seeping up from pipeline operations below.

“This is exactly what we predicted,” says Jacksonville attorney Tom Edwards, who owns land in Suwanee County directly in the pipeline’s route. “And we were told, ‘Oh don’t worry about it, we know what we’re doing.'”

The Sabal Trail Pipeline will eventually extend 516 miles from Alabama to Orlando and carry 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day. Its path takes it underneath three major rivers – the Suwannee and Santa Fe in Florida, and the Withlacoochee  in Georgia -- and straight through a web of springs and underground caves.

“Florida has more springs per square mile than anywhere in the world, and this area of Florida has more springs than anywhere in Florida,” notes Edwards. “For them to be putting a three foot pipeline thru that -- how are they going to keep this fragile system from collapsing?”

Collapse has been a concern of federal regulators. The limestone rock formations under the soil, known as Karst, are sometimes compared to Swiss cheese. The rock is porous, filled with pockets of air and springwater, and prone to sudden collapse.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency noted as much in an October 2015 letter, which cited “very significant concerns” about the pipeline, including the quote “sudden development of a sinkhole that could damage the environment” The agency also expressed concern for the Floridan Aquifer – the state’s drinking water supply – and noted there were other, less risky routes were available.

But project had the support of Governor Rick Scott and the regulators he appoints. Two months after it raised objections to the project, after meeting with pipeline officials, EPA reversed itself. 

The company says the sinkhole, which appeared Nov. 5, has nothing to do with the Nov. 17 incident, in which drilling mud penetrated the Withlacoohee River from operations below.

“The two items you referenced are unrelated,” spokesperson Andrea Grover said in a written statement. “The sinkhole is in an upland and approximately 1,400 feet from the previously reported inadvertent release.”

She added, “This is not a sign of weakness in the area .... It is simply indicative of the Karst geology that exists throughout this regional area. The pipeline is designed to be installed in this type of geology, and the federal and state agencies and experts took all of that into consideration when reviewing and approving the construction plans.”

Even if the two incidents are unrelated, the sequence is troubling, says Edwards. “It means their drilling activity is causing collapse, which is exactly what we predicted. That collapsing rock and terrain are going to collapse into the Aquifer, and it has the potential to damage or even divert river flow.”

Having watched the events unfold in North Dakota, Edwards says he admires protesters’ passions, but does not believe those lessons apply here.

“Nothing is going to change unless the Army Corps of engineers comes in and says ‘stop’ or the DEP comes in and says ‘stop,’” he says. “The bottom line is our state and federal governments who are responsible for protecting the sensitive areas of our state haven’t done their jobs.”


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