The Palmetto Pipeline will be one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Georgia. The underground pipeline will have the capacity to transport about 150,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel fuel and ethanol each day along a 360-mile route that starts in Belton, S.C., moves southward and crosses the Savannah River near Augusta, and then proceeds to city of Savannah.
From Savannah, the plans are to extend the petroleum pipeline through the coastal region to its end point in Jacksonville. The Georgia portion of the pipeline route will cross through a total of 11 Georgia counties.
Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based energy firm, is ready to spend as much as $1 billion on the pipeline, which it anticipates will be in operation by the middle of 2017.
The Palmetto Pipeline could have a huge impact, for better or worse, on much of the eastern part of Georgia, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the state’s political leadership. The top elected officials have largely been silent about the project.
Gov. Nathan Deal often talks about the Savannah harbor dredging as the state’s most important infrastructure project. But the Palmetto Pipeline, at $1 billion, will cost 40 percent more than the $700 million port expansion.
There was little mention of the Palmetto project in the General Assembly this year until the next-to-last day of the session, when Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, and a few coastal area lawmakers introduced a resolution urging the use of existing rights-of-way for pipeline construction.
Even as it has cruised under the political radar, however, the Palmetto Pipeline has stirred up a lot of heated opposition among landowners and environmental groups in the coastal region.
More than 500 people turned out for a hearing last week in Richmond Hill, most of them opposing the pipeline over concerns about the environmental impact and the company’s plans to condemn private property along the route.
The environmental worries stem from the fact that the 210 miles of pipeline situated within Georgia will be in close proximity to two major sources of water: the Savannah River and the Floridan aquifer that underlies most of the coastal region.
“Accidents do happen,” said Ashby Nix, the Satilla Riverkeeper. “There is a pipeline leak or failure every day in the U.S. What would happen with a leak or rupture? At a river crossing, a spill would be equal to 700 truckloads of fuel into the river that day.”
“In the event of an accident, the damage to the watersheds of five of Georgia’s major rivers, coastal landscapes, and swamps could be virtually irreparable,” said another group, the Savannah Riverkeeper.
Kinder Morgan officials say they are taking all the necessary precautions to protect against spills.
“We are very proud of our safety record and consistently perform better than our industry peers in almost all safety and release-related measures,” the company said in a prepared statement.
It is estimated 86 percent of the pipeline route travels through existing utility corridors set aside for roads, pipes, and power poles, but Kinder Morgan is still asking the Georgia Department of Transportation to give it the authority to condemn private property where necessary.
“They are asking the state to give private property to a private company to make money,” said Tony Center, a Chatham County commissioner. “Can I get the state to give me land for a Wendy’s? No, it is wrong, wrong to give state power to a private company.”
“Experience shows that the use of eminent domain is rare,” Kinder Morgan Vice President Allen Fore said during a recent briefing to the Bryan County Development Authority. But the possibility of condemnation remains, and it still rankles many residents.
There is another public hearing scheduled by the DOT for May 7 in Waynesboro, but the department is expected eventually to approve a permit for the project. You can look for the Environmental Protection Division to sign off on the pipeline as well. Barring a last-minute reversal, it appears that construction of the facility will get underway soon.
Georgia’s top politicians may not be very familiar with the Palmetto project right now. That will change quickly if the pipeline ever does spill a load of petroleum into Georgia’s waterways.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.