In 2013, Marion County residents began to receive letters from Sabal Trail Transmission. Now, they’ve made it their mission to save their land, and stop Sabal Trail. 

Illustration by Sydney Martin.

Chaplin Dinkins opened Dinkins Service Store in 1926, the same year U.S. Route 41 was completed in Dunnellon, Fla. In its prime, the store smelled of sweet feed, hay and incense. Chicks would chirp behind the store.

Dinkins, like many stores along the route, closed years ago. The white paint has faded, and its four gas pumps have long run dry. The marquee out front is now an empty metal frame. For 70 years, Dunnellon’s economy ran on phosphate mining and production, until companies discovered in 1966 they could mine for a cheaper, lower-grade version elsewhere in Florida.The city struggled to stay afloat after their desertion; in 2013 it nearly filed for bankruptcy.

But Dunnellon, nestled between two state parks and bisected by the clear, 72-degree water of Rainbow River, always had its physical beauty. No longer a boomtown, the city turned to ecotourism and farming, which has sustained it ever since. Today, Dunnellon’s population is mostly composed of ranchers and farmers, and its Halpata-Tastanaki Preserve is a popular destination for horseback riders. During the summer, traffic along the Rainbow River’s drop-off points can be backed up for close to an hour.

Months before the town considered bankruptcy in 2013, residents of Dunnellon began to receive letters from a company called Sabal Trail Transmission. The letters were an introduction and explained why the company was coming to the area: to build a natural gas pipeline and compressor station. The letters were part of the first step in the process of getting a pipeline approved.

Only landowners within 600 feet of the pipeline received a letter, so not many people in Dunnellon are aware of it. But the ones who are fear it could completely disrupt their way of life.

The pipeline will pass within a mile of the Rainbow River; residents fear that if it leaks the water will no longer be the clear aquamarine that brings flocks of tourists. And the drilling necessary to construct it is cause for concern: last November, a section of the pipeline leaked into Georgia’s Withlacoochee River. Environmentalists also fear drilling into the porous Florida bedrock will create sinkholes. The pipeline will pass under agricultural lands; farmers who burn their crops for fertilization fear explosions. It will go within a mile of Dunnellon High School and Dunnellon Elementary School and run parallel to the only road residents can use to access them.

In February, the city opened its first three-story hotel, built to accommodate the influx of tourists the river brings each year. As most of the residents live in one-story mobile homes, the three-story building is a big deal. Meanwhile, in August 2016 the pipeline was officially approved by the federal government and is planned to be completed in May of this year. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in September, 2016, and protests are ongoing across the state, but activists are working against a behemoth. The companies behind the pipeline have money and clout with state governments; if the pipeline is going to be stopped, activists need more people to get involved and pay attention.

“The whole neighborhood has changed, everything has changed” said Kathy Lane Iozzi, a resident of Dunnellon. The pipeline will run under her driveway. “Trees are being cut down, and there’s nothing anyone else can do. But, I’m sorry, I wasn’t raised to go down without a fight.”

An oak tree is felled by Sabal Trail construction workers. Photos by Molly Minta.

Resistance to Sabal Trail began in Georgia.

The pipeline, a joint venture of three energy companies — Duke, Spectra, and NextEra — begins in Alabama, where it connects to an existing network of pipelines, and directs natural gas through a series of underground pipes to its endpoint, a Duke Energy power plant in Florida.

Florida and Alabama will both net economic benefits from the pipeline and the power plants will create jobs. But the same can’t be said for Georgia where the pipeline merely passes through — that is, under — the state. Local landowners and state representatives argued that Georgia had nothing to gain from the pipeline but sinkholes, contaminated rivers and pollution from the industrial compressor stations. If the pipeline had to be built, they wanted Sabal Trail to consider a new route, one that didn’t put the pipeline through environmentally protected lands and a historically African American neighborhood. But NextEra and Duke wouldn’t budge. The companies had chosen the route for a reason: it coincided with properties that had already granted them legal permission to build over or through them — anything else would be too costly or take much longer.  

In March 2016 the Georgia House of Representatives voted 12834 to deny Sabal Trail the permission they had previously acquired from properties in Georgia. But because the federal group in charge of overseeing the permitting of pipelines had already granted Sabal Trail eminent domain — the power to use private property for public use — the House vote was in conflict with the federal government. The state and Sabal Trail were thrown into court.

Georgia’s attorney general, Republican Chris Carr, had previously spoken about the importance of protecting landowner’s property rights against federal overreach. But Carr is also a member of the Republican Attorneys General Association. Under the direction of Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, RAGA has held conferences frequented by representatives from the oil and natural gas industries. A 2014 New York Times investigation found that these conferences enabled Republican attorneys general to coordinate policy with the oil and natural gas industry. When it came time for Carr to represent Georgia and defend its landowners’ property rights in court, he declined, deferring to the federal government’s “overreach.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has also attended these conferences and has been similarly influenced. In 2015, her office joined former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens’ lawsuit against a federal rule that expanded the EPA’s definition of United States waters, calling it federal overreach.

Though Carr foiled their action, Georgia representatives had at least tried to stand up to the pipeline. But in Florida, energy companies have poured $12 million into the campaigns of state lawmakers since Citizen’s United ended donation restrictions for private companies in 2010. Governor Rick Scott has, by far, received the most of Florida politicians: his 2014 reelection campaign took in more than $1.1 million from companies like Duke and Florida Power and Light, a progenitor of NextEra. Scott, who also owns stock in Spectra, made good on their investment, passing legislation in 2013 that sped up the permitting process for interstate natural gas pipelines.

A construction worker for Sabal Trail hauls wooden planks across the Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve. The wooden planks allow construction trucks to drive evenly across the land.

But those opposed to the pipeline don’t just have to take on corruption at the state level. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that granted Sabal Trail eminent domain and which oversees interstate pipeline projects, is supposed to regulate the natural gas industry and hold the companies accountable. Activists, however, contend that it does just the opposite.

“The whole system is corrupt from top to bottom,” said John Quarterman, president of the WWALS Watershed Coalition, which stands for the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little and Suwannee rivers. He said that though FERC receives money from Congress every year, it’s self-funding, which means that it is authorized by the government to collect annual fees from the industries it regulates. FERC is the only independent executive agency in the United States with this kind of authority. In essence, Quarterman said, the agency is susceptible to being bought out by the natural gas industries.

“The word you’re looking for starts with ‘c,’ as in corrupt,” Quarterman said. “The polite way of saying it is ‘regulatory capture.’”

FERC is tasked with evaluating how a pipeline will impact the communities, wetlands and conservation areas it may pass through. They found that 83.7 percent of the municipalities affected by the Sabal Trail pipeline were very poor, black or Hispanic, or all three. Yet, confusingly, FERC claimed the pipeline would not disproportionately affect these communities. In October 2015, the EPA objected to this claim, writing in a letter to FERC that it had “very significant concerns” over the pipeline’s impact and about the study. But three months later the EPA met with representatives from Sabal Trail and walked back its concerns.

“The minute they go behind the house and see the compressor station, no one wants to buy it. It was forced upon us, and we’re the unlucky people who happened to be in the way.”

But EPA objections or not, small landowners who live along the pipeline, especially the 263 who didn’t want to give up their land but had to anyway, will still be affected.

David Shields is a resident of O’Brien, Suwannee County, another small town along the pipeline where a compressor station will soon be built. He moved from Jacksonville to O’Brien in 2009 with his wife, Ginger, and their six children to start an organic farm.

Before construction began, Shields could hear cows moo two miles away. Now, the view from his porch is marred by the pipeline, which lies 1,200 feet from his property. “In no way did I think we’d move to that,” he said.

The jury is out, Shields said, on whether his family will try to move again. Their biggest concern is for their chickens. Poultry is sensitive to emissions, and compressor stations radiate not only light, but noise pollution as well.

“We don’t have the means to just go buy more land,” he said. “We can’t sell ours now. The minute they go behind the house and see the compressor station, no one wants to buy it. It was forced upon us, and we’re the unlucky people who happened to be in the way.”

Despite the family’s proximity to the pipeline, they never received notice of its construction. They believe they weren’t notified because their land does not directly adjoin the construction.

A padlock bars entrance to the Hálpata Tastanaki Preserve, an environmentally protected public land.

But Ronnie Richardson, a newly elected Suwannee County commissioner who lives a mile and a half away from the compressor station, said that no one received any notification at all.

“[Sabal Trail] didn’t notify people properly,” he said. “They notified the wrong city — Suwannee, Florida, not Suwannee County … My understanding of the law says that everyone within a three-mile radius must be notified, and our family was never notified. People within a mile radius were not notified; people within half a mile radius were not notified.”

Sabal Trail did advertise their public meetings in the local newspaper, but Richardson said that’s not enough to properly notify people in Suwannee County.

“We have too many people who do not get the paper, who can’t afford the paper, so they don’t know what is going on unless a letter is sent out or there is another type of notification,” he said.

As for the public meetings, Shields described them as “sickening.” He said that officials from Sabal Trail and FERC were uninterested in anything the residents had to say. He also said Jason Bashaw, the commission chairman, was purposefully letting individuals speak longer than they were allotted, so that he could use the commission’s frustration with droning protesters to table further public comment. Shields said Bashaw told the audience, “You’re not gonna change our minds.”

“The local officials in Suwannee seem like their interests had been decided for them,” Shields said. “Every avenue was shut down.”

Richardson would not go so far as to say Suwannee County didn’t have a choice, but, from a perception standpoint, he said, “They’re shoving it down our throats.”

Construction workers for Sabal Trail clear land by High School Road. Bryant described the construction site as “the perfect place to protest.”

Wearing a shirt that sports a neon periodic table of elements, 13-year-old James Huston, an eighth grader at Dunnellon Middle School, stares into the camera, his eyes narrowed.

“Water is life,” he begins the public service announcement, which aired on his middle school’s morning announcements. His tone is frank. “That’s what the Native Americans at Standing Rock are saying, yet their water source is in jeopardy due to the Dakota Access pipeline. The same thing is happening here.”

Video courtesy of James Huston.

James and his grandmother, Sharon Huston, were reading through Facebook updates on the water protectors at Standing Rock when they saw the name “Sabal Trail” in the sidebar. The next day, as the two were on their way to school, they noticed construction along the road.

The pipeline’s route puts it less than a mile away from the high school and elementary school, but when James tried to talk about the pipeline, he found out that no one knew, not even the teachers.

Sharon, concerned with the school’s lack of knowledge, wrote to the superintendent of  Marion County Public Schools but never received a response. She then sent two letters to the principals of Dunnellon High School, Middle School and Elementary school, but also received no response. She tried contacting the school information office and the manager of the school buses. But still, no response.

According to Andrea Grover, a spokesperson for Sabal Trail, school officials were never formally notified of the pipeline because the schools are more than three-fourths of a mile away, outside the 600-foot “potential impact radius.”

But James and his grandmother wonder what will happen if the pipeline explodes. According to Sabal Trail, the high school is safe from explosion, but the pair are less sure. James continues to talk about the pipeline, to the point that his classmates are starting to tune him out.

“It’s getting irritating to them,” he said. But James is undeterred. He used the equipment for his school’s morning announcements program to make the PSA and was allowed to show it during the regular announcements. Though he said his classmates also tuned out the announcement, the video gained attention when it circulated through several Facebook groups protesting the pipeline.

In rural areas like Dunnellon, fences and “No Trespassing” signs are common. Bryant has found it difficult to directly talk to her neighbors about the pipeline, but the Facebook pages have become a hub for concerned residents in Dunnellon, as well as many activists across the state.

One such Facebook group, “Save Our Springs Stop Sabal Trail Pipeline,” was started by Dunnellon residents Connie Bryant and Annette Stutzman. They found out about the pipeline after Bryant received a letter from Sabal Trail announcing that they would be going through her neighborhood. Then, the pair met Janet Barrow, a local resident, and discovered how much there was to learn.

“[Bryant] started the page because we thought Dunnellon needed to know, and Dunnellon didn’t know,” Stutzman said.

Together they form the backbone of Dunnellon’s resistance. They created the Facebook group at Stutzman’s store, just down the road from Dinkin’s, which provides a space for them to meet.

“There’s so much ignorance in this town,” Bryant said. “It’s the reason they put it through rural communities.”

Construction around a well in Dunnellon, Fla. The well connects to the headwaters for the Rainbow River.

Local activists have stopped large-scale infrastructure projects before. In 1971, activists successfully halted the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project, which is now the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. Its history is still a proud part of the community in Dunnellon, and materials from the cleanup for the artwork on the walls of Swampy’s, a restaurant that looks out over the Rainbow River.

“There was every reason to think that nothing was going to stop it,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, an organizer of the ad hoc Sabal Trail Resistance group. “It was stopped through a similar hodgepodge of political pressure, legislation, protest.”

The results of the presidential election, combined with the news that Dakota Access Pipeline was halted, have galvanized direct action across the state. Every day, water camps along the pipeline swell in size, as water protectors who were originally on their way to North Dakota are opting to come here, attracted by the warm weather. Mass demonstrations have been planned, the latest one gathering hundreds and, for the first time in history, forcing Suwannee River State Park to close due to overcrowding.

“I’ve never done phone-banking before,” McDaniels said. “I’m pretty much teaching myself how to do all of this. But that’s how every activist starts, right?”

In cities across the state, individuals have also been compelled to take action. When Trevor Caughlin created a letter-writing campaign to the pipeline’s major financial backers, he didn’t expect nearly 600 people to be interested in his Facebook event.

“I felt like I was really complacent before the election and am now a lot more eager to be involved with local movements, particularly since a lot of the environmental action is going to be taking place at the local level,” Caughlin said.

“‘Radical municipalities’ is a really important buzzword for environmental action,” he went on to say.

The activists understand that it’s unlikely the pipeline will be stopped through direct action alone. But the pipeline is nearly 85 percent complete, spokesperson Andrea Grover said, and the Sierra Club’s lawsuit won’t be heard until May.

If activists can slow down construction, like 14 tried to do in Gilchrist County in November 2016, they have a chance of stopping the pipeline.

The activists were practicing typical tactics of direct action — walking slowly across the road to prevent trucks from reaching the construction site, holding signs and chanting. Then, Stephan Barron chained himself to a water truck. All 14 were arrested.

“I thought it was going to be a calm, small protest out in the boonies,” said Allie McDaniels, one of the 14 arrested. “Once I realized it was happening, I kind of just accepted it.”

The protest was McDaniels’ first foray into activism, and she plans to do much more.

“I’ve never done phone-banking before,” McDaniels said. “I’m pretty much teaching myself how to do all of this. But that’s how every activist starts, right?”

A couple weeks later, as part of a national day of action, activists and water protectors in Gainesville gathered in front of the Shell gas station on 43rd street. Reporters flitted amongst the protestors, grabbing quotes and shooting pictures of their colorful signs, which bore slogans like “Frack Sabal Trail” and “Water is Life.” The protestors marched to Gainesville’s Army Corp of Engineers office, but it was closed during its usual hours of operation. Activists weren’t surprised, but they vowed to keep fighting. 

“It is disheartening that people feel they don’t have the power to stop it,” Sharon said. “But, they got Standing Rock halted. The more people become involved, the more likely it can be stopped.” •

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Chaplin Dinkins last name was Dinkin. The pipeline is passing within a mile of Dunnellon High School and Dunnellon Elementary School, not Dunnellon Middle School.