The eminent domain debates: Madison County News, Jefferson GA, 3/8/07

Legislation could give pipeline companies more authority to take private land

By Zach Mitcham

Four out of five Georgia state senators want to make it easier for petroleum pipeline companies to seize private property through eminent domain, a move they say is simply practical planning for growth, a way to ensure that Georgia has enough access to oil.

But critics say legislators who support the bill are simply putting citizens’ private property rights aside and bowing down to the powerful oil lobby.

Two major petroleum pipelines traverse Madison County: Colonial Pipeline and Plantation Pipeline.

Colonial Pipeline has acknowledged plans to run a 500-mile pipeline from Baton Rouge to holding tanks in Cobb County. This expansion project would, of course, occur west of Madison County.

Madison County’s State Senator Ralph Hudgens, who will leave his post after this legislative session to seek Georgia’s 10th District seat in the U.S. Congress, was among those voting in favor of the bill, which passed the senate by a 43-11 vote on March 1.

“Colonial Pipeline explained to me that they are at their capacity and all this (legislation) will do is allow them to put a third pipeline in their existing right of way that they have,” said Hudgens, adding that the expansion will help Colonial serve the Atlanta airport with necessary jet fuel. “It’s primarily for the airport.”

So could the legislation ultimately pave the way for easier seizure of property in Madison County if the petroleum companies eventually choose to run additional lines through the county?

Hudgens said he was assured by Colonial executive Sam Whitehead that this is not the pipeline company’s intent in pushing for the legislation.

“Sam Whitehead knows that I represent Madison County and he came to me on the Senate floor and said that this piece of legislation will not do anything in Madison County and won’t allow us to do anything in Madison County,” said Hudgens. “This is strictly for this pipeline coming out of Louisiana into Powder Springs.”

Hudgens said that restrictions were tightened on pipelines in the ‘80s due to political pressure from south Georgia plantation owners on the General Assembly. The current bill would relax some of those restrictions.

“In the 1980s there was an attempt to put a pipeline down in south Georgia to hook up to another pipeline and some of those big plantation owners in Thomas County started fighting this and they had enough political clout to go and get the General Assembly to put some legislation together to cause it to be impossible to put the pipeline in,” said Hudgens. “This (current bill) will take out some of those provisions that were passed back then. They had to take the provisions out of the existing codes in order to do this (expand from Louisiana to Cobb County).”

House Representative Alan Powell, who represents Madison County, said that he is not in favor of the senate bill.

“It would also allow pipeline companies to expand up to two miles outside their current easements,” wrote Powell in a column about the legislation published in last week’s Journal. “This bill appears expand the ability to condemn private property, and I am among many who are concerned it would lead to further improper use of eminent domain.”

Before it can be put into law, Senate Bill 173 must ultimately passed by the House and signed into law by the Governor.

Those favoring the move said it’s a simple matter. The state is growing. The state needs more oil. Proponents note that in the past 12 years the state’s population has grown from seven to 10 million. And more growth is expected.

“Now these next millions of people coming to Georgia — they ain’t going to be riding bicycles,” said Sen. John Bulloch, as quoted in the March 4 Thomasville Times. “We’ve got to have additional petroleum products in this state. The cheapest way to move them and the safest way to move them is through a pipeline.”

But critics say Georgians shouldn’t be eager to “give pipeline companies a blank check to condemn private property” in the state.

Georgia political columnist Bill Shipp said that “protection of private property rights from eminent domain takeovers” used to be a “bedrock tenet” of Republicans. He said the GOP is forsaking that old-time principle with the pipeline bill.

“The measure eliminates the current requirement that a pipeline company must show ‘public necessity’ to exercise eminent domain for a new or expanded facility,” wrote Shipp this week in a column titled “Return of the pipeline monster (see Page 4A). “…We Georgians are the shocked good guys about to be throttled. We thought we had driven a stake into the heart of the pipeline vampire. Alas, we failed. Senate Bill 173, which would effectively give pipeline companies a blank check to condemn private property in Georgia, is riding a cash-greased rail to becoming law.”

Colonial Pipeline has faced national attention for leaks along its lines. The company was fined $34 million in recent years by the federal government for spilling 1.45 million gallons of oil from its 5,500 mile pipeline in five states.

There have been spills locally, too. Colonial admits to six spills at its booster station just south of Danielsville off Colbert Grove Church Road between 1966-79. Contaminated residential drinking water was discovered in the area in the mid 1990s. The company provided $950,000 for a water line from Madico Park to the contaminant zone.

A group of Colbert Grove area residents has been meeting monthly for more than a year to discuss the spills, the company and issues related to pipeline safety. That group, Citizens Organized for Pipeline Safety (COPS), plans to meet again Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at Colbert Grove Baptist Church.

Colbert Grove Church Road property owner Richard Bennett, an outspoken critic of Colonial Pipeline, said the senate’s legislation to assist Colonial is atrocious.

“More lies from Colonial Pipeline backed by mostly Republicans who have been bought and sold by the oil industry,” said Bennett. “Same old, same old.”

Madison County News, Jefferson GA: http://www.mainstreetnews.com