Eminent Domain threatens landowners over Palmetto Pipeline

More than 100 people chanted and marched through Forsyth Park in Savannah Saturday. Their message was simple, stop the 360 mile long proposed project known as the “Palmetto Pipeline.”

BY Al Hackle ahackle@statesboroherald.com 912-489-9454
Along the proposed Palmetto Pipeline route, from places such as Sylvania and Springfield, concerned residents will drive Tuesday to Richmond Hill for the first real Georgia Department of Transportation hearing on the project.

Kinder Morgan, the company planning to build the $1 billion motor-fuel pipeline from northwestern South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, held six previous meetings for public input. These included a meeting March 10 at Sylvania in Screven County and another March 31 near Springfield in Effingham County.

Kinder Morgan hosted these at the direction of the Georgia DOT. But after the Savannah Riverkeeper questioned whether the company-led meetings could fulfill the state’s hearing requirement, Department of Transportation officials consulted the state Attorney General’s Office and conceded the point.

“The statute says basically that you should have public hearings, so we asked them to do them, but afterwards we asked for an opinion from the AG’s Office whether we should be the ones to hold them, and they came back and said that we should,” Karlene Barron, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s communications director, said Friday.

The hearing scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday in the Richmond Hill City Center was announced three weeks ago. But new in Friday’s phone interview, Barron revealed that the DOT will hold a second hearing, at Waynesboro in Burke County. She gave the date as May 7 but said the exact location had not been determined.

Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry had directed staff members to plan the second hearing and announced it Thursday, Barron said.

Comment deadline extended

After the Waynesboro hearing, the department will receive public comments until May 15, Barron said. This extends the period for written comments from the previously announced May 1 deadline.

In an emailed response to questions about the Richmond Hill hearing, Melissa D. Ruiz, palmetto-pipeline-pathKinder Morgan’s corporate communications manager, emphasized that the company held the earlier meetings at the DOT’s behest.

“Kinder Morgan set up the first round of meetings at the direction of the Georgia DOT, and the Georgia DOT has added an additional public meeting to continue gathering feedback regarding the project,” Ruiz said. “It has always been our intent to address landowner and community concerns, and we will continue to do so as the project progresses.”

Both Barron and Ruiz said that the state transportation agency will receive the comments from the earlier hearings. The court reporters who took down spoken statements are sending the transcripts straight to the DOT, Barron said.

“The commissioner will consider those comments in the decision,” she said.

If the department approves a certificate of public convenience and necessity, the project still would face regulatory steps with other agencies. But with the certificate, the company can exercise eminent domain, forcing sale of permanent easements for use of a 50-foot-wide right of way.

The 16-inch pipeline, buried 4 feet deep along most of its route and made of high-strength steel, would carry gasoline, diesel fuel and denatured ethanol from an existing pipeline at Belton, South Carolina, to terminals in Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville. At the Sylvania hearing, Kinder Morgan officials said the fuels will be for distribution in these areas, not export.

Crossing the Savannah River near Augusta, the pipeline would follow the river much of the way to Savannah. Maps show it closest to the river in southern Screven and northern Effingham counties.

Landowner concerns

Sylvania resident Debo Boddiford said the timing of Tuesday’s hearing is inconvenient for her, but she hopes to make the more than hour-long drive to Richmond Hill.

Her husband operates a fertilizer dealership, his brother is a farmer, and the Boddifords and their relatives own large tracts of land the pipeline will pass through in Screven County.

At the earlier Sylvania meeting, Boddiford asserted that the pipeline would be neither necessary nor convenient.

“Of course we’re all concerned about the river and environmentally,” she said in an interview this week. “If there was a leak, we’re very concerned that this area they’re going to put it through, the largest majority in Screven County can be very swampy.”

For heavy vehicles such as log trucks to cross the buried pipeline, Kinder Morgan officials have said, special pads and additional soil may have to be placed on top. Landowners would have to contact the company, which would send someone to check the crossing site and give permission.

The need to ask permission would apply to vehicles as light as pickup trucks, Boddiford said.

The company is offering a one-time payment for the easements, but she said that property owners would continue to bear the tax liability and expense of any special arrangements for crossings. For cellphone towers, in contrast, property owners usually receive annual rent.

“That’s why I’d like for Georgia officials to take a step back, not approve this right now and rethink this whole thing,” Boddiford said. “I personally think that Georgia law, perhaps laws nationwide, need to change to give the property owner in this type of situation more benefit.”

Greg Rahn of Springfield also plans to attend Tuesday’s hearing. He attended the meetings in Sylvania and at Ebenezer near Springfield.

His brother owns land the pipeline is slated to pass through. Rahn, who owns the land adjacent to his brother’s tract, said he is concerned for both, not knowing which way the route may be shifted.

“When you clear that open spot all the way across your property, that just kind of opens it up for four-wheelers and trespassers because it’s a wide-open shot, and you know how they travel power lines,” Rahn said. “So we don’t want our property open to the public.”

Riverkeepers opposed

Both the Savannah Riverkeeper and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organizations are part of a coalition opposing the pipeline.

The route crosses the Ogeechee near Richmond Hill. Called earlier this week, Ogeechee Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn criticized the Georgia Department of Transportation’s handling of the project.

“They should be the experts on how to hold these meetings, what the process is to go through,” she said. “They shouldn’t be beholden to the applicants … and it just seems like from day one, they’ve taken a back seat to whatever Kinder Morgan wants to do.”

Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus had voiced her objections to the earlier company-led meetings for the record at the Sylvania session.

This week, the Riverkeepers got some of what they were asking for in terms of the process. Kinder Morgan released detailed maps of the route at midweek, Bonitatibus confirmed.

The DOT hearings and comment period are a critical point for the opposition to be heard, she said. The project also will need a water quality permit from the state Environmental Protection Division and multiple permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but these address specific aspects rather than the overall plan, Bonitatibus said.

Read more at the Herald.

Stacy George

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