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Sabal Trail Construction in Gilchrist and Levy Counties and the Lives it Touches

A Long Day Ends in Darkness for Workers on the Sabal Trail Pipeline

A Long Day Ends in Darkness for Workers on the Sabal Trail Pipeline

Last week, I visited some Sabal Trail Pipeline construction sites with filmmaker Dylan Hansen and two of his team.  We were there to document the construction of the pipeline and not to film infractions to submit to oversight agencies.  Given the tensions between our new political administration and the views of climate scientists and other nations that signed the Paris Climate Agreeement, the installation of this pipeline and others right now has great historical significance.  

The workers tolerated our presence much more than they did on my recent history tour with reporters that ended in an arrest. Partly it was less tense because no sheriffs were present and maybe they were more tolerant because we said we were only there to document the installation.  Later, at Robin Koon's property a worker astutely observed that he was just doing his job and we were doing ours.  A woman who was with us added, "None of us are millionaires here."  It is important to remember that the pipeline workers are not the ones making the decision to install or not install the pipeline. They are there to do the work they were hired to do to support their families and pay their bills.

Maybe I would't take those jobs, or maybe I would get out when I realized what destruction the pipeline was causing to the environment, but it is not my place to judge anyone especially when I have no idea what these workers life situations are and given that those who are responsible for what is happening are much higher up in the companies these people work for.  The workers should be allowed to do their jobs without personal harassment and photographers and concerned citizens should be allowed to document what is happening.  It is this type of tolerance that our Constitution was written to uphold.

The image above was taken the second time we passed by a site, on our way back from dinner.  We were shocked that they were still working when we pulled up.  Clearly, they are trying to get this pipeline in the ground as quickly as possible, before anything can happen that would hamper its completion. If workers are sometimes testy, perhaps it has something to do with the long hours they are forced to work, most likely against their will.

Digging the Trough for the Pipeline

Digging the Trough for the Pipeline

The image above shows them digging the trough for the pipeline to go under the road and the image below is of them laying  a pipe in on the other side.  The green pipes are the ones that get laid in, the red ones get pushed through under roads or rivers. The red pipes have a different coating that supposedly makes them stronger and more resistance to nicks, one of the workers told me. When they push them through, he said they do a lot of praying. Maybe he was joking, maybe not.  It is challenging work even under a road.  I can't imagine how difficult it is under a river with a karst bed or through a swamp, where roads are unpaved and few and far between.

Laying in a Section of Pipe, Sabal Trail Pipeline

Laying in a Section of Pipe, Sabal Trail Pipeline

After camping the night at the Water is Life Camp, we headed down to Levy County to Robin Koon's property in Bronson.  

Bronson, the Heart of Levy County

Bronson, the Heart of Levy County

This is one of the signs welcoming visitors to Bronson, the Heart of Levy County.  You can see the tractor mowing down brush and trees behind the sign.  The trees and a short distance are what separate the pipeline from Bronson Park where numerous recreational activities and team sports are played.  Fireworks are also set off at this park, which will now be within an explosion zone.  Tina Elmore-Wright, a local Mvskoke/Cherokee whose father is an Elder took me to this sign and around Bronson to several other construction sites after we visited Robin.

Robin Koon and his Mother Ruby

Robin Koon and his Mother Ruby

The image above was taken at Robin Koon's property right after the first trees were taken but before everything had been cleared for construction.  Robin is looking out at the wetlands with a sense of foreboding for all the creatures that make their home there.  His mother, Ruby, is experiencing dementia and looks to Robin for cues on how to function in the world. She senses his concern and Robin says as the construction has continued, she has become more and more anxious.  She keeps looking for her deceased husband who is buried here.  Robin and Ruby fly their flag at half mast for what is happening to their land.

Ruby with the Flag at Half Mast

Ruby with the Flag at Half Mast

As I mentioned in a previous blog, ashes from five of Robin and Ruby's family members were scattered a few feet from the construction.  Robin is fearful some of these ashes have been plowed through as ashes scatter a little further than you toss them. This whole tract of land is significant to the Seminole people and ends in Station Pond, which has great significance to the tribes. Tina's father always wanted to be buried here as well. He is in a VA hospital nearing the end of his life now and Tina does not know where to bury him. They moved the pipeline for a pit used by dirt bikers, but they would not reroute the pipeline around these sacred grounds.   

Tina's son Patrick and his Grandfather

Tina's son Patrick and his Grandfather

The photograph below is of Tina and her son Patrick standing in front of the wetlands that have been such an important part of their life.  Tina's indian name means Sawgrass Flower.  She said her mother's name is translated as Mourns the Dawn.  Even their names expressed their connection to the environment and their awareness of the way nature is being threatened.  Her mother sought sanctuary in Station Pond, just a mile up the power line path from here. Station Pond is the union of land and water, so its symbolism is magnified for the Seminole people.  Her mother's ashes were scattered there, since the water flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  Tina wanted to bury her father here, where his fellow tribe members have been laid to rest, because he would be able to find his way to her mother.  Her father, a former boat builder, was named Sandy by his grandmother for the Big Sandy River.  His Indian name means Wanders on Water. Robin and Tina both stressed that for their tribes it is important to know how to find your ancestors who have crossed over once you pass.  If you do not find them, they believe, you are forever lost.  To choose to wander is one thing, to be forced to do so for eternity is another.

Tina Elmore-Wright and her son Patrick Kelly

Tina Elmore-Wright and her son Patrick Kelly

Looking Down the Barrels of Destruction

Looking Down the Barrels of Destruction

There is a dirt road to one of Robin's neighbors right through the construction route, so we were able to walk on that road and see and photograph up and down the pipeline route.  Usually it is impossible to see sites like this, because it is a felony to put even your big toe on pipeline property.  To the left of the pipes is the Wetland Boundary sign, which is why Robin has been so concerned for the wildlife here. 

Egret on the Mats

Egret on the Mats

When laying in the pipeline in marshlands, of which there are many in Florida, the construction companies have to lay down these mats so their equipment won't sink into the mud and to prevent further destruction of the wetlands.  I wondered what this bird was sensing from his perch on the mats, with all the noise of machinery and workers as they altered the landscape so dramatically.

Men at Work on the Sabal Trail Pipeline through a Section of Pipe

Men at Work on the Sabal Trail Pipeline through a Section of Pipe

In the background of this image, you can see a crane transporting three sections of pipe.  Through the section of pipe in the foreground, three workers are visible.  We spent an hour or so watching construction.  I was surprised to see how much environmental devastation is required for a 36 inch pipe, but it takes a lot of equipment to get them into place.

Tina Elmore-Wright's Grandmother Rose Jones

Tina Elmore-Wright's Grandmother Rose Jones

The photograph above is of Rose Jones, Tina's grandmother. This land has been important to the Seminole people for generations.  It is one more area where their history is being erased.  Talking about loved ones and ancestors was very emotional for both Robin and Tina. I couldn't help but feel the disruptive effects this pipeline construction was having on their lives.  I sensed also that the environmental scars were harder for them to witness, since their lives are more closely linked to nature.  Tina said she has only been to Station Pond once since this started, and she was too overcome to go back. I wonder what her grandmother would think of all of this.