When the letter arrived from a Texas pipeline company asking permission to enter his land, Alan Zipperer refused to allow surveyors onto his property.
But they came anyway, he said, traipsing through his corn fields and pine forests and sticking wooden stakes in the low-country land his family has owned since the 1700s.
“I don’t want a private company to build a gasoline pipeline in my front yard — or anywhere on my property,” he said. “They told me the same thing they told others: ‘We’re a big company, we’re coming, and the state of Georgia can’t stop us.’”
Zipperer, 60, is one of many Southern landowners challenging the nation’s largest energy infrastructure company, Kinder Morgan, as it plans to run a petroleum pipeline through 360 miles of bottom land, river forests and freshwater coastal wetlands across South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The pipeline’s opponents argue it represents an unconstitutional use of eminent domain and an environmental threat.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, entered the fray May 7, announcing that the state would fight the $1-billion project in court. The Georgia Department of Transportation rejected the pipeline plan May 19, declaring it would not serve a public need.
The dispute is one of a growing number of skirmishes over pipelines nationwide. With the U.S. producing more oil and gas than it has in decades, private companies are clamoring to build new transportation infrastructure, said Alexandra Klass, a professor who specializes in energy law at the University of Minnesota.
One of two pipelines being proposed in Georgia, the Palmetto pipeline is particularly contentious because it would cross land owned by the state’s House majority leader, Jon Burns, and a local media tycoon, William S. Morris III, who owns newspapers in Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla.
“What’s different about this project — unprecedented — is that a landowner controls three major newspapers along the pipeline route,” said Allen Fore, vice president of public affairs for Kinder Morgan. It was also highly unusual, he added, for a leading oil company, Colonial Oil, to work with local river keepers to oppose a pipeline.
“Certainly, we have seen strange bedfellows line up in opposition,” Fore said.
The Palmetto pipeline would carry up to 167,000 barrels of refined petroleum a day from Belton, S.C., to Jacksonville. It would cross the Savannah River and work its way down the Georgia coast, crossing four more major rivers.
Many here question the wisdom of running a pipeline through wetlands and parallel to a river — particularly one that supplies drinking water to more than 1.5 million people. In December, one of Kinder Morgan’s pipelines spilled 370,000 gallons of gasoline in Belton.
As Debo Boddiford, whose family owns 2,000 acres of timberland along the Savannah River, put it: “Oil and water don’t mix.”
Yet much of the opposition to the project has focused on property rights. The pipeline would cut a 50-foot swath through the property of more than 1,000 landowners across 20 Georgia, South Carolina and Florida counties.
Families in this stretch of the rural South have long passed on land from generation to generation. Traditionally, they planted cotton, peanuts and corn, but in recent decades most have switched to timber, which is less labor-intensive.
Aside from economic value, the forests and creeks have a sentimental hold as places where families have, for generations, dipped into swimming holes, hunted deer and squirrels and fished for catfish and bream.
“I’m trying to protect something that was passed on to me,” said Jimmy Helmly, 59, a retired teacher, as he steered his ATV through a forest of longleaf yellow pines and black gum trees toward Ebenezer Creek. “People from away from here, with no ties, just want to make a dollar. I understand. I believe in American capitalism. But why should I sacrifice so you can make billions?”
If the pipeline is built, landowners would no longer be able to grow timber along its 50-foot-wide path. Though the pipeline corridor represents just a fraction of land for wealthy landowners here, they insist a private company should not seize any amount of their property.
“Eminent domain should never be used by a private company that is going to make a high profit,” Boddiford said. “A road, a bridge, perhaps a school in a growing neighborhood.… It should be something that is good for the majority of residents.”
At the heart of the dispute is whether the pipeline serves a public need.
A relatively new Georgia statute requires companies to demonstrate that “public necessity” for a pipeline “justifies the use of the power of eminent domain.” When the state Department of Transportation denied Kinder Morgan’s application, it rejected the public need argument. The company has 30 days to appeal the decision in court.
The pipeline’s supporters say it will meet future demand for fuel. Kinder Morgan says the pipeline will create 28 permanent full-time jobs, increase competition and lower prices at the pump.
Opponents scoff at the idea that consumers will reap benefits. Colonial, the local oil company, has said the pipeline could displace more than 200 truckers, port workers and U.S. merchant marine workers in Georgia.
Still, not everyone in the low country resists the pipeline.
“I won’t have any heartbreak over it, one way or the other, as long as I can get in and out of my property,” said Steve McDaniel, 62, a retired structural mechanic who lives in a new subdivision in Rincon near the proposed pipeline.
McDaniel isn’t particularly worried about gas prices — just up the road, a gas station was charging $2.42 a gallon — yet he said he couldn’t understand the fuss. “We have pipelines all over the county. What’s the big deal?”
Yet landowners up and down the Savannah River say Kinder Morgan’s brazenness has made them unwilling to negotiate. This month, the Savannah Morning News published mug shots of three company surveyors who were arrested on suspicion of trespassing on Morris’ 24,000-acre plantation without permission.
“Hell, they ran over my pine saplings with their damn ATV,” said Eddie Reddick, who gave the company permission to survey his 845-acre tract of timberland near the Morris estate.
The company, which says its policy is to not enter private property if survey permission is denied, is conducting a review of trespassing complaints. For many locals, the surveyors’ behavior — mixed with a perceived lack of transparency about the pipeline route — has increased suspicion.
“The winners in this situation are all going to be out of state,” Boddiford said. “They want to come in and take Georgia land, yet the profit is going back to Texas.”