Palmetto Pipeline: An Eminent Problem

I hop off the boat into a horde of red-white-and-blue-clad 4th of July revelers. Looking back at the mighty Savannah River, I see a half dozen children playing in the water, with two sets of alligator eyeballs cresting the water thirty feet or so beyond.

“What’s going on here,” I ask Tonya, my guide and companion for the week, who also happens to be of the Savannah Riverkeeper (a contributor to the funding of this part of my project).Independence Day revelers set off fireworks as people look on from the river.

“Oh that’s fine, those gators are always here,” she cooly replies.

We’re halfway through our journey down the Savannah River from above Augusta to the ocean, tracing the proposed route for a new gas pipeline, meeting the people that would be impacted along the way. This trip is part of a series of short films telling the stories of our most passionate defenders of freshwater around the United States. A gas pipeline of this magnitude has dredged up fiery passions on all sides of the issue. With it being Independence Day, we eschewed any set plans and posted up on a sandbar, which shortly after our arrival turned into a party barge destination of epic proportions. Before long, we earned an invite to the “real” 4th of July barbecue on the banks of the river a mile or so downstream.

Tonya Bonitatibus drives her skiff down the Savannah River.Tonya seems to know everyone, so I get to know everyone. With an equal number of t-shirts featuring the Union and Confederate flags, I try to downplay my upstate New York roots and fit in with the 150 or so partiers. I ask everyone I can about their feelings on the proposed Palmetto Pipeline. Most seem to be against its implementation, but not for the reasons I might expect.

Looking back a year later, there were certainly a handful of people opposing it for purely environmental reasons, but the most repeated complaint was the proposed use of eminent domain by Kinder Morgan, the company responsible for the construction of the pipeline. Employing eminent domain could save millions of dollars for Kinder Morgan, removing the need to negotiate with individual landowners. This basically means landowners’ properties would be assessed for a certain value (usually quite low). Kinder Morgan would pay the property owners to get the right of way to build the pipeline. However, this leaves the landowner, who still technically owns their property, to pay taxes on land they could no longer use. This didn’t sit well for many of the people we met.Savannah River in mist

Eminent domain is typically used for large public works projects, such as highways or power lines, and the proposed use by a private company enraged many local landowners and motivated them to fight for the protection of their land and water.

Meeting these people and understanding their fight has greatly widened my understanding of why people care about rivers. Having grown up paddling and guiding on rivers around the country, I hold them in high regard for an entirely different set of reasons than my new red-white-and-blue Georgia and South Carolina friends. Despite the different routes to this passion, the end result is the same, people wanting to protect the integrity of their rivers.

In early 2016, government officials reasoned that eminent domain couldn’t be used because there wasn’t a significant public benefit to the additional gas it could provide. The Savannah River will run a little freer thanks to the hard work of an unlikely group of advocates crossing political and demographic boundaries to protect the water and the land.

What is in many places a very wild river, rapidly changes to a massive port.

The Water Is for Fighting project, funded in part by a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant, documents the challenges facing our nation’s freshwater resources. Corey Robinson is collecting these stories through film, still pictures and words. Check back next week for the third of a four-part series of documentary videos about the project.

Follow along with @coreyrobinson #w4f2015

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“Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Corey Robinson is a filmmaker and Young Explorer Grantee collecting stories through film, still pictures and words. The "Water Is for Fighting" project documents the stories of people around the United States fighting to protect their waterways. Follow along with @coreyrobinson #w4f2015