A study commission tasked with recommending changes to the way Georgia evaluates gasoline and diesel pipelines is beginning to take shape. Last week Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) appointed the first three of its 13 members: Rep. Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon), who was appointed co-chair; Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem); and Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway).
Hitchens and Williams were among the sponsors of the authorizing legislation, House Bill 1036, which was signed into law May 3. Once fully formed, the State Commission on Petroleum Pipelines has until Dec. 31 to hold a maximum of five hearings and in doing so “conduct a detailed study to ensure the exercise of eminent domain powers by petroleum pipelines is carried out in a prudent and responsible manner consistent with this state’s essential public interests.”
The law spells out that the other appointments include: three members of the Senate to be appointed by the President of the Senate; the director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources or his or her designee; the commissioner of community affairs or his or her designee; and five members to be appointed by the governor, including one member representing the petroleum industry and four members representing a cross-section of the interests of local government, business, agriculture, and conservation.
The law also imposes a moratorium on building a petroleum pipeline until July 2017. The legislation was widely acknowledged to be aimed at the $1 billion Palmetto Pipeline that pipeline giant Kinder Morgan proposed to carry gasoline and diesel fuel from Belton, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla. The Palmetto Pipeline was only the second petroleum pipeline to seek approval under a 1993 law that was written in response to an earlier study committee’s recommendations after a long-undetected pipeline leak polluted lawmaker Robert Ray’s wells and pecan orchard in Fort Valley. Natural gas pipelines are regulated federally and will not be addressed by the study commission.
From the time it was initially announced in 2015, the pipeline riled property-rights advocates who urged the state to deny it access to eminent domain. Georgia DOT did deny the company that right, and a Fulton County judge upheld the decision. Environmentalists also saw the pipeline as problematic because it would cross floodplains and threaten watersheds as it paralleled the Savannah River and the coast on a 210-mile route in Georgia. In late March, citing the impending moratorium,Texas-based Kinder Morgan announced it was suspending work on the project.
Hitchens noted that he and the other two House members represent districts along that route. He hopes to have at least one hearing in the Effingham area, where some of his constituents trace their Salzburger heritage back centuries and feel a deep connection to their land, he said.
“Eminent domain is going be a significant issue. There will be some environmental issues as well. Kinder Morgan just spilled 370,000 gallons in Belton, S.C.,” Hitchens said, referring to a December 2014 gasoline spill from an existing pipeline. “I can’t imagine what that does to the environment. (The Palmetto Pipeline) was going to cut through some of the most sensitive environmental areas in the state. A spill that magnitude could do some damage.”
Williams, who expects the commission to hold five hearings, also pointed to eminent domain as key.
“It’ll be a balanced commission, and it’s going to look at everything with a lot of emphasis on eminent domain,” he said.
This article was originally published by the Savannah Morning News on June 14. Click here to view the full article →