Pipe­line re­bel­lion in Deep South

A com­pany’s plans — and its brazen­ness, crit­ics say — run into a pow­er­ful wall of landowner op­po­si­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Jenny Jarvie na­tion@la­times.com

RIN­CON, Ga. — When the let­ter ar­rived from a Texas pipe­line com­pany ask­ing per­mis­sion to en­ter his land, Alan Zip­perer re­fused to al­low sur­vey­ors onto his prop­erty.

But they came any­way, he said, traips­ing through his corn fields and pine forests and stick­ing wooden stakes in the low-coun­try land his fam­ily has owned since the 1700s.

“I don’t want a pri­vate com­pany to build a gaso­line pipe­line in my front yard — or any­where on my prop­erty,” he said. “They told me the same thing they told oth­ers: ‘We’re a big com­pany, we’re com­ing, and the state of Ge­or­gia can’t stop us.’ ”

Zip­perer, 60, is one of many South­ern landown­ers chal­leng­ing the na­tion’s largest en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture com­pany, Kin­der Mor­gan, as it plans to run a petroleum pipe­line through 360 miles of bot­tom land, river forests and fresh­wa­ter coastal wet­lands across South Carolina, Ge­or­gia and Florida.

The pipe­line’s op­po­nents ar­gue it rep­re­sents an un­con­sti­tu­tional use of em­i­nent domain and an en­vi­ron­men­tal threat.

Ge­or­gia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Repub­li­can, en­tered the fray May 7, an­nounc­ing that the state would fight the $1-bil­lion project in court. The Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion re­jected the pipe­line plan May 19, declar­ing it would not serve a public need.

The dis­pute is one of a grow­ing num­ber of skir­mishes over pipe­lines na­tion­wide. With the U.S. pro­duc­ing more oil and gas than it has in decades, pri­vate com­pa­nies are clam­or­ing to build new trans­porta- tion in­fra­struc­ture, said Alexan­dra Klass, a pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in en­ergy law at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota.

One of two pipe­lines be­ing pro­posed in Ge­or­gia, the Pal­metto pipe­line is par­tic­u­larly con­tentious be­cause it would cross land owned by the state’s House ma­jor­ity leader, Jon Burns, and a lo­cal me­dia ty­coon, Wil­liam S. Mor­ris III, who owns news­pa­pers in Au­gusta, Sa­van­nah and Jack­sonville, Fla.

“What’s dif­fer­ent about this project — un­prece­dented — is that a landowner con­trols three ma­jor news­pa­pers along the pipe­line route,” said Allen Fore, vice pres­i­dent of public af­fairs for Kin­der Mor­gan. It was also highly un­usual, he added, for a lead­ing oil com­pany, Colo­nial Oil, to work with lo­cal river keep­ers to op­pose a pipe­line.

“Cer­tainly, we have seen strange bed­fel­lows line up in op­po­si­tion,” Fore said.

The Pal­metto pipe­line would carry up to 167,000 bar­rels of re­fined petroleum a day from Bel­ton, S.C., to Jack­sonville. It would cross the Sa­van­nah River and work its way down the Ge­or­gia coast, cross­ing four more ma­jor rivers.

Many here ques­tion the wis­dom of run­ning a pipe­line through wet­lands and par­al­lel to a river — par­tic­u­larly one that sup­plies drink­ing wa­ter to more than 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple. In De­cem­ber, one of Kin­der Mor­gan’s pipe­lines spilled 370,000 gal­lons of gaso­line in Bel­ton.

As Debo Bod­di­ford, whose fam­ily owns 2,000 acres of tim­ber­land along the Sa­van­nah River, put it: “Oil and wa­ter don’t mix.”

Yet much of the op­po­si­tion to the project has fo­cused on prop­erty rights. The pipe­line would cut a 50foot swath through the prop­erty of more than 1,000 landown­ers across 20 Ge­or­gia, South Carolina and Florida coun­ties.

Fam­i­lies in this stretch of the ru­ral South have long passed on land from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. Tra­di­tion­ally, they planted cot­ton, peanuts and corn, but in re­cent decades most have switched to tim­ber, which is less la­bor-in­ten­sive.

Aside from eco­nomic value, the forests and creeks have a sen­ti­men­tal hold as places where fam­i­lies have, for gen­er­a­tions, dipped into swim­ming holes, hunted deer and squirrels and fished for cat­fish and bream.

“I’m try­ing to pro­tect some­thing that was passed on to me,” said Jimmy Helmly, 59, a re­tired teacher, as he steered his ATV through a for­est of lon­gleaf yel­low pines and black gum trees to­ward Ebenezer Creek. “Peo­ple from away from here, with no ties, just want to make a dollar. I un­der­stand. I be­lieve in Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism. But why should I sac­ri­fice so you can make bil­lions?”

If the pipe­line is built, landown­ers would no longer be able to grow tim­ber along its 50-foot-wide path. Though the pipe­line cor­ri­dor rep­re­sents just a frac­tion of land for wealthy landown­ers here, they in­sist a pri­vate com­pany should not seize any amount of their prop­erty.

“Em­i­nent domain should never be used by a pri­vate com­pany that is go­ing to make a high profit,” Bod­di­ford said. “A road, a bridge, per­haps a school in a grow­ing neigh­bor­hood.… It should be some­thing that is good for the ma­jor­ity of res­i­dents.”

At the heart of the dis­pute is whether the pipe­line serves a public need.

A rel­a­tively new Ge­or­gia statute re­quires com­pa­nies to demon­strate that “public ne­ces­sity” for a pipe­line “jus­ti­fies the use of the power of em­i­nent domain.” When the state Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion de­nied Kin­der Mor­gan’s ap­pli­ca­tion, it re­jected the public need ar­gu­ment. The com­pany has 30 days to ap­peal the de­ci­sion in court.

The pipe­line’s sup­port­ers say it will meet fu­ture de­mand for fuel. Kin­der Mor­gan says the pipe­line will cre­ate 28 per­ma­nent full-time jobs, in­crease com­pe­ti­tion and lower prices at the pump.

Op­po­nents scoff at the idea that con­sumers will reap benefits. Colo­nial, the lo­cal oil com­pany, has said the pipe­line could dis­place more than 200 truck­ers, port work­ers and U.S. mer­chant marine work­ers in Ge­or­gia.

Still, not ev­ery­one in the low coun­try re­sists the pipe­line.

“I won’t have any heart­break over it, one way or the other, as long as I can get in and out of my prop­erty,” said Steve McDaniel, 62, a re­tired struc­tural me­chanic who lives in a new sub­di­vi­sion in Rin­con near the pro­posed pipe­line.

McDaniel isn’t par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about gas prices — just up the road, a gas sta­tion was charg­ing $2.42 a gal­lon — yet he said he couldn’t un­der­stand the fuss. “We have pipe­lines all over the county. What’s the big deal?”

Yet landown­ers up and down the Sa­van­nah River say Kin­der Mor­gan’s brazen­ness has made them un­will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate. This month, the Sa­van­nah Morn­ing News pub­lished mug shots of three com­pany sur­vey­ors who were ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of tres­pass­ing on Mor­ris’ 24,000-acre plan­ta­tion with­out per­mis­sion.

“Hell, they ran over my pine saplings with their damn ATV,” said Ed­die Red­dick, who gave the com­pany per­mis­sion to sur­vey his 845acre tract of tim­ber­land near the Mor­ris es­tate.

The com­pany, which says its pol­icy is to not en­ter pri­vate prop­erty if sur­vey per­mis­sion is de­nied, is con­duct­ing a re­view of tres­pass­ing com­plaints. For many lo­cals, the sur­vey­ors’ be­hav­ior — mixed with a per­ceived lack of trans­parency about the pipe­line route — has in­creased sus­pi­cion.

“The win­ners in this sit­u­a­tion are all go­ing to be out of state,” Bod­di­ford said. “They want to come in and take Ge­or­gia land, yet the profit is go­ing back to Texas.”

Jenny Jarvie For The Times

“I’M TRY­ING TO PRO­TECT some­thing that was passed on to me,” Ge­or­gia res­i­dent Jimmy Helmly said of his land. “Peo­ple from away from here, with no ties, just want to make a dollar.”

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