The Sabal Trail pipeline project scored a regulatory victory last Friday when an administrative law judge (ALJ) recommended that Florida regulators approve a permit for the pipeline over the objection of environmentalists.

Environmental group WWALS Watershed Coalition Inc.’s primary objection to the project is the laying of pipeline in what it says is unstable karst terrain unfit for such a project. Such limestone geology is subject to holes, cracks and fissures, as well as sinkholes, which are common in North Florida.

However, ALJ Bram D.E. Canter recommended that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issue a permit for the project [CP15-17], which is a joint venture of Spectra Energy and NextEra Energy Inc. (see Daily GPI, Nov. 21, 2014).

Sabal Trail would run from a Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. station in Tallapoosa County, AL, to serve Florida demand, particularly for gas-fired power generation. As planned, the pipeline would cross a dozen Florida counties, entering the state in Hamilton County and ending in Osceola County.

WWALS, which is based in Georgia, advocates for stewardship of the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little and Upper Suwannee river watersheds in South Georgia and North Florida.

“Although fragile in particular locations, karst terrain is able to support large linear facilities in North Florida such as Interstate 10, Interstate 75, and railroads, which bear loads of many tons without collapse occurring in the underlying limestone,” Canter said in his opinion. “The pipeline design specifications provide reasonable assurance that the formation of a sinkhole along the path of the pipeline would not cause it to break.”

Canter also wrote that besides four WWALS members whose property would be crossed by Sabal Trail, the concerns of other members of the organizations were generally speculative when it came to how they would be affected by the pipeline. “Although a substantial number of WWALS members have substantial interests in the use and enjoyment of the waters and environment of Hamilton County and Suwannee County, a showing of potential injury to those interests was only established in the record for four WWALS members — the four who own land that the pipeline will cross,” Canter wrote.

WWALS members are not the first to raise the issue of fragile karst terrain in the path of Sabal Trail. Lawmakers from Georgia have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider route alternatives, mainly to avoid low-income communities but also out of a concern for karst (see Daily GPI, Oct. 27). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has raised multiple concerns about the project, including karst (see Daily GPI, Oct. 23).