Two Georgia growers had prime ground turned upside-down by a natural gas pipeline trenched through their farmland. Compounding the growers’ frustration, the federal government is poised to allow contracted pipeline employees to conduct a soil investigation on the same farmland the pipeline company is accused of ruining.
Despite acknowledgement in an inspection report that “topsoil and subsoil mixing” have occurred on separate farming operations belonging to producers Wavell Robinson and Randy Dowdy as a direct result of Sabal Trail pipeline activity, the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC) is permitting the pipeline company to conduct its own sampling “to test for soil compaction and mixing.”
Farmland disturbance claims related to lifetime yield reduction resulting from Sabal Trail activity initially began with Dowdy, but Robinson is now making a similar contention. (For previous FJ coverage of the Sabal Trail-Dowdy-Robinson conflict, see here and here.) Robinson says 25 acres of his southwest Georgia farmland are “severely affected by commingling of the soil” due to Sabal Trail pipeline construction: “Time and money were important to Sabal Trail, not the integrity of my soil.”
Soil mixing on Robinson’s land is described in FERC’s November 2017 inspection report: “The inspector noted a clear distinction in surface soil texture and color between the on- versus off-right-of-way areas. Further, there was a white, chalklike, rock within the right-of-way area that was not seen off right-of-way. Mr. Robinson provided photos depicting this rock greater than 6 feet below the ground’s surface, which would indicate a mixing of subsoil and topsoil.”
The 2017 FERC inspection report also confirms soil disturbance on Dowdy’s farmland, resulting from Sabal Trail pipeline construction during 2016-2017. On Feb. 6, 2018, FERC instructed Sabal Trail to develop a soil testing plan to measure the extent of compaction and mixing on Dowdy and Robinson land. Sabal Trail’s plan (released March 9) is “inadequate,” according to retired ARS soil scientist Wayne Reeves, and is “severely compromised,” contends Dowdy, through the use of contracted employees for testing and measurement.
Roughly 8 miles northwest of Dowdy’s operation in Brooks County, Robinson grows cotton, peanuts, tobacco and watermelons. Prior to pipeline construction in 2016, Robinson insists Sabal Trail gave him “complete assurance” regarding farmland sensitivity. “I’m just a farmer and soil is the only thing I’m interested in,” he explains. “Soil is my ground zero because that’s where my farm starts. Sabal Trail promised they would put my soil back in place as close to pre-construction as humanly possible. Didn’t happen.”
Robinson’s farmland is covered by approximately 12” of topsoil, above 3’ of clay subsoil. Below the clay sits a hard, 4’-thick layer that holds the 36” pipeline. Prior to construction, Robinson asked Sabal Trail to haul away the 36” core of undesirable dirt, but he says the request was refused. (Sabal Trail declined all FJ questions related to Wavell Robinson.)
From the start of pipeline construction, the initial peel-back of the top 12” was done incorrectly, according to Robinson: “You have to understand. I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t even talk to the people doing the work. I had to use a Sabal contact person for communication, but nothing I said made any difference. My words had no effect.”
After the pipeline was buried and the layers pushed back into place, the result was an “unbelievable mix,” Robinson says. The hard dirt from below 4’ was visible above ground in many places, and 3”-4” of the topsoil was pushed down below, he describes: “They put back 8”-9” of topsoil in place thinner and thinner the closer they got back to the pipeline. The 36”-core was mixed back in. It was a big mess. It is a big mess.”
“I’ve worked all my life to create this soil environment for whoever comes next when I’m dead. All I asked was for Sabal Trail to do it right so I could farm like I used to.”
Compounding Robinson’s frustration, he claims Sabal Trail did not offer restitution. “They just said they were sorry and there was nothing they could do about it. They didn’t know how right they were because my soil is now commingled and nobody will ever be able to fix it.”
With 25 acres of his farmland affected along the right-of-way, Robinson addresses Sabal Trail’s performance with blunt words: “Preserving, not commingling and maintaining the integrity of my soil, as they promised, was a very low priority for Sabal. I believe the evidence is going to show Sabal was only interested in getting by as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was all in writing and they still did nothing like they promised.”
Sabal Trail pipeline construction was due for completion by the first week of 2017 on Dowdy’s Brooks County land, but work was ongoing when rains hit during the third week of January. The ground was inadequately protected and Dowdy reportedly lost 40-plus acres of topsoil and decades of yield potential. The acreage took a precipitous yield dip in the fall of 2017, dropping 60%-80% across areas of erosion or commingling of soil, according to Dowdy. “All you had to do was look at my fields,” he recalls. “You could see the exact lines where the soil damage ended and yields climbed back up.”
Alleging a chain of Sabal Trail regulatory violations related to topsoil loss and wetlands contamination, Dowdy also claimed heavy topsoil and subsoil mixing. The 2017 FERC inspection report appears to back Dowdy’s contention of soil disturbance: “…topsoil and subsoil mixing have occurred. However, the extent of the mixing is currently unknown…”
Based on the inspection report findings, Terry Turpin, director of FERC’s Office of Energy Projects, instructed Sabal Trail to file a plan to measure the severity of soil mixing and compaction, and Turpin approved the Sabal Trail testing proposal in late March. Dowdy is protesting what he calls a “huge hole” in the proposal: Sabal Trail is allowed to oversee its own plan.
In a proposal letter submitted to FERC, Sabal Trail identifies two soil professionals selected by the pipeline to implement the plan. According to Sabal Trail, its soil testing plan was formed in conjunction with Charles Mitchell and Kirk Iversen. From Sabal Trail’s proposal: “This testing plan has been developed in consultation with Charles C. Mitchell, Jr., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Auburn University’s Department of Agronomy and Soils, and Kirk V. Iversen, a Certified Professional Soil Scientist, affiliated with Auburn University’s Department of Crops, Soil & Environmental Science, both of whom will coordinate the sampling and testing activities.” (FERC declined to answer FJ questions related to Sabal Trail and Dowdy. Mitchell and Iversen didn’t respond to FJ phone calls or emails.)
Dowdy claims both Mitchell and Iversen are “contract employees” of Sabal Trail. In a letter to Turpin, Dowdy protests the involvement of Mitchell and Iversen. Beyond the request for an independent investigation, Dowdy says the science involved in Sabal’s proposal is insufficient for a fair assessment, and he is backed by retired ARS soil scientist Wayne Reeves.
Reeves is plain in his assessment of the Sabal Trail soil testing plan: “In my view, this plan is inadequate and must include far more expansive testing. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds, but this plan is insufficient in that the data gathered could never be used to properly measure the impact of Sabal Trail activity on the soil because of variation throughout the field.” (Sabal Trail declined to answer FJ questions related to Robinson, Dowdy, Iversen, Mitchell and FERC.)
“In a nutshell, the variation they’ll find in their readings will make the data inadequate because of too few sampling points. This is going to take a spatial statistics approach which is vastly more extensive than Sabal’s proposed plan,” Reeves adds.
The use of paid consultants is common, but the practice isn’t conducive to a reliable investigation, according to Reeves: “It’s nothing personal. It’s the simple fact that contracted people compromise the situation. If FERC wants this done right, then they should bring in someone with no ties to either party. That is a reasonable solution for any landowner and should have been dictated by FERC.”
Dowdy hasn’t agreed to testing protocols, although Sabal Trail has completed sampling at the Robinson location. “I want to know who is going to be pulling, where, and how. I also want them to pull in some particular locations, but they say they’ll only pull samples from the exact spots approved by FERC. At least meet me halfway and sample some spots where I know the damage is located,” Dowdy says.
Dowdy remains adamant regarding his insistence on an independent investigation: “Who is on the pipeline payroll? Any normal farmer asks for independent investigators and anything less is not right.”