COLUMBIA, SC Responding to concerns that private land will be condemned for a petroleum pipeline along the Savannah River, South Carolina legislators introduced a bill this week that could further complicate plans for the 360-mile-long pipe from Anderson County to Florida.
The bill won’t be debated until next year when the Legislature returns to Columbia, but opponents say that still should give them time to derail the $1 billion pipeline proposed by energy company Kinder Morgan.
Kinder Morgan’s pipe would run through six South Carolina counties before crossing the Savannah River below North Augusta near the town of Jackson. It would then go through south Georgia to Jacksonville, Fla.
The bill, introduced a day before the 2015 legislative session ended, would institute protections for landowners like those in nearby Georgia. In Georgia, private pipeline companies need state approval before they can condemn land. South Carolina does not have a system like that.
“There is a huge problem in South Carolina,’’ Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said. “Fixing it will go a long way toward protecting property rights.’’
Landowners are increasingly leery of the pipeline, fearing that their property could be taken by a private company if they don’t want to sell. Environmental groups oppose the project because they say the pipeline could break and pollute the Savannah River, wetlands and groundwater. A public meeting was scheduled for Thursday night in Abbeville. Kinder Morgan has said it does not want to condemn land – which is rare – but would rather negotiate with property owners.
Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz released a statement, saying the company does not favor tightening regulations. Ruiz said “we believe that careful consideration should be given before the law is changed, in order to ensure both that private property rights are respected and that special interests are not able to unilaterally block economic growth prospects in South Carolina.’’
According to the House bill, private pipeline companies would need permission from the S.C. Public Service Commission that their projects served a public need before the companies could condemn land. They also would need permits from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control that the environment isn’t unduly harmed before they could condemn land. The bill says the route of a pipeline must be disclosed and property owners notified. Decisions could be appealed to the state’s Administrative Law Court, the bill says.
“I’m just trying to look after the folks in South Carolina’s private property rights to make sure they have due process under the law,’’ said state Rep. Bill Hixon, an Aiken County Republican who co-sponsored the bill in the House. “We want it plain and clear that they’re going to have that.’’
A similar bill was introduced in the Senate this week.
Hixon, Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, and other lawmakers from their area previously have sought an opinion from S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson on what property rights people have under existing law. Research conducted by lawyers in Georgia revealed that South Carolina’s law is weaker than Georgia’s in addressing private property rights protections when pipeline companies want to condemn land.
Last month, the Georgia Department of Transportation turned down Kinder Morgan’s pipeline through that state, saying the private company had not shown a public need for the pipe. That prevents the company from condemning land for the project, although Kinder Morgan plans to appeal.
Bonitatibus said she’ll be ready for the debate when it comes up next year in the Legislature. In the meantime, she said she’ll have time to marshall more opposition to the Kinder Morgan plan. Her organization has helped form a coalition of environmentalists and conservative landowners against the pipeline. While many people worry about their land being taken, environmentalists say the pipeline could spill gasoline and pollute the already struggling Savannah River. Pollution of groundwater and swamps also is of concern.
“Support is strong for this bill and I think that will only grow in the coming months,’’ Bonitatibus said. “The landowners can hold off until January. Kinder Morgan, we can hold them up in courts until then.’’
The Legislature had plenty of debate about environmental laws in 2015, but few bills addressing the environment passed. At the same time, a bill to reopen the Barnwell County low-level waste dump to many states never was introduced because its chief supporter, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the timing was not right.
Those bills that did not pass included proposals to:
▪ Crack down on large farms that take major amounts of water from rivers.
▪ Allow roads and other construction projects to be built while environmental permits are under appeal.
▪ Cut regulations protecting wetlands and rivers in the interior sections of Dorchester County.
▪ Eliminate the public’s right to appeal environmental permits to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board.