SOUTHEASTERN environmental activists celebrated last week as several important decisions were made by government officials.
On Tuesday, March 16, the Georgia Senate passed HB 1036, which temporarily prevents corporations from invoking eminent domain as a way to commandeer private land in their quest to lay pipelines through the state. The bill, which passed 53 to 1, is in effect until June 30, 2017.
A state-appointed commission will utilize the time to review the existing 1995 Pipeline Act and provide clarity on the use of eminent domain, defined as the right of government or its agencies to take over private property for public use for the greater good.
The legislation is a specific response to the efforts of multinational petroleum transportation company Kinder Morgan, which submitted a proposal last year to build a 360-mile pipeline across five ecologically fragile watersheds, including the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers.
Kinder Morgan attempted to use eminent domain to build 50-foot easements along the Palmetto Pipeline, provoking pushback from property owners and the environmental community.
Last May, the Dept. of Transportation denied a permit of Public Convenience and Necessity, and KM’s attorneys have been appealing ever since. With the passage of HB 1036, it—and any other company—can still apply for permits, but the state will not approve any until the moratorium is lifted.
“It is clear that the courts feel the same as the DOT, that the Palmetto Pipeline is neither convenient nor necessary, and that the pirate company project should not be allowed to use the sacred right of eminent domain against our citizens,” says Savannah Riverkeeper director Tonya Bonitabus.
“This is a long way from over, but every decision is one step closer to ensuring that Georgia citizens are protected—not only our private lands but our shared resources as well.”
As the state’s Riverkeepers and freshwater lovers rejoiced in the triumph, there was also excellent news for Georgia’s oceans. On the same day HB 1036 cleared the Senate, the White House announced that it would not lease out the southeastern Atlantic coast for offshore oil drilling.
Last year, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposed a five-year draft plan that called for the potential leasing of 104 million acres along the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia for gas and oil extraction for the first time in history. Companies began applying for permits almost immediately to use seismic air gun blasting to survey deposits along the ocean floor, a practice proven to damage and kill wildlife.
Regional activists against the proposal expressed concern for the endangered North Atlantic right whales that calve at Gray’s Reef off the Georgia coast as well as the imminent possibility of an oil spill like the BP Horizon disaster that destroyed the Gulf Coast in 2010.
More than 110 coastal communities and a thousand local and regional officials signed public opposition against the BOEM plan, including Tybee Island and St. Mary’s. The grassroots effort had a marked influence on the Obama administration’s reversal on offshore drilling, along with concerns that it would conflict with other industries and the realities of tanking oil prices.
“When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years,” explained U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Oil companies and certain legislators, including local U.S. House representative (and climate change denier) Buddy Carter, have been in favor of offshore drilling, saying that it would create jobs and secure the U.S. economically. But those opposed to it made their voices heard in Washington, and the overwhelming response to Tuesday’s announcement has been positive.
“This decision reflects a host of reasons not to open the Atlantic to drilling, including the intense opposition from local communities, concerns from the Department of Defense about how drilling would impact military activities, and a different economic and energy outlook,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“We appreciate that the Administration took the time to hear from all sides of this issue and make the right decision.”
Also at the state capitol last week, a crew of community leaders and concerned citizens ramped up their message at the Georgia Water Coalition’s Clean Water Day of Action.
In light of the drinking water disaster in Flint, MI that has poisoned thousands of citizens, participants traveled from all corners of Georgia to demand that legislators protect public and private water sources from contamination.
Testing in several communities has revealed the presence of arsenic, bacteria, uranium, and other contaminants in drinking water wells and other groundwater sources around the state.
“People in our community are sick,” said Annie Laura Howard Stephens of Shell Bluff, Georgia. “We believe that radiological pollution in the water is the cause.”
Help is hopefully on the way with SB 36, the Underground Water Supply Protection Act of 2015. Currently in its last round in House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, the bill would prohibit the injection of ground water into the Floridian aquifer in certain counties and protect private water sources.
“I pull water from our wells to irrigate my organic vegetable crops,” said Relinda Walker, owner of Walker Organic Farms near Sylvania, Georgia.
“We’re committed to growing clean food for our community, so I’d like our politicians and regulators to make sure that the water we use stays clean.”