Dowdy's story is shocking. It's awful. It's infuriating. His once extremely productive farm has been destroyed. The company refuses to pay him for repairs. Promises made were not promises kept.
Sadly, Randy Dowdy's story isn't unique. Its a common story told over and over by landowners who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the middle of a linear energy infrastructure project, whether pipeline or electric transmission line.
Don't believe verbal promises from the company.
When Sabal Trail approached him, Dowdy agreed to a negotiated fee for the right-of-way and estimated crop loss because he knew if he balked, the government would help the company take it anyway. He agreed in good faith, as well. Sabal Trail promised that Dowdy’s land would be returned to its original state by early January, in time for the new planting season.
And this is where the dispute begins.
“I was assured that Sabal would adhere to Georgia Soil and Water provisions,” says Dowdy, “that they would adhere to guidelines for segregated top soil and sub soil…rebuild my terracing to insure erosion wouldn’t occur…and put everything back in pre-construction condition. They said they would do…in their words…everything it takes.”
Companies will hide behind construction management plans approved by regulators.
Andrea Grover, Director of Stakeholder Communications for Sabal Trail, says the company “followed specific protocols in place for construction which include storm water, erosion and sediment control plans which all require best management practices or “BMPs.”
“Our representatives have worked with individual landowners over the course of the past 3 ½ years to address concerns as related to the project and its impact to agriculture,” Grover explains. “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) is the lead agency which approves pipeline projects, and Sabal Trail’s work is limited to only the FERC approved areas and conditions for construction. Project inspection personnel and our contractors all have the appropriate level of certifications for storm water controls inspection in Georgia.”
Landowner complaints are ignored.
While Sabal Trail management promised that Dowdy’s farm would be back in business by the first week in January, and ensured that the project right-of-way would be “restored to its previous condition and contours,” that wasn’t the case. Repairs continued into February—and, worse, were still in progress when a major late January storm hit the state.
“I had already reached out to Sabal Trail management at least five times in December to say I was seeing erosion issues,” recalls Dowdy. “They promised to fix it immediately, but they never did, so when the storm came, we were completely unprotected.”
Your only remedy for a dispute over damage is through civil court, at your own expense.
Dowdy thought he had made some headway with Sabal Trail when the company, in an attempt to make peace with an unhappy landowner, offered to pay Dowdy to make additional repairs to his land.
“They asked me to put together an estimate for attempting to repair the land, including an acceptable value I placed on my wetlands, and additional future yield loss,” says Dowdy. “We made a verbal agreement and I began repairs as instructed. Sabal knew the costs and agreed to pay for the estimated costs of repair.”
“When it came time for them to pay though, they introduced a condition—in order to get my reimbursement, I would have to sign a document releasing Sabal from future long-term yield loss, wetland violations and compensation. Here I was repairing what they messed up at my own expense and then they want more.”
Dowdy says his lawyer advised him not to sign and, thus far, he has not signed nor has he received a penny of the promised reimbursement from Sabal Trail.
Despite having access to approved construction management plans, personnel actually completing the work have little knowledge of the plans and are apt to take shortcuts or plain ol' ignore the plans in order to get the job done easier and faster. The people doing the actual construction work don't care about your property the way you do.
Dowdy’s laundry list of what wasn’t completed correctly by Sabal Trail is long.
“Sediment barriers were placed wrong, no hay was spread, there were no temporary terraces or berms…water was moving off my land at a 10% grade and sediment was going right into the surrounding wetlands and waterways. If Sabal had been in compliance with BMPs, I wouldn’t have been replacing 15,000 cubic yards of topsoil as I am having to do after the storm.”
Grover says Sabal Trail did return to Dowdy’s farm, and others impacted by pipeline construction, after the late January storm event, to “inspect the construction areas to ensure soil erosion devices installed according to the BMPs are working properly or repaired if necessary.”
But by then, says Dewey Lee, UGA Professor and Extension Agronomist, even though Sabal Trail installed additional BMPs after the storm damage was discovered, it was too late.
Lee who has worked with Dowdy on conditioning his farmland for a decade, says, “In the restoration that Sabal did, it appears they did not follow regulatory protocols perfectly. It appears that the crew handling the reconstruction did not have a full understanding of what their responsibilities were. This ultimately caused erosion down Randy’s waterways and across his field.”
Like Lee, irrigation specialist, Rance Harrod, knows well Dowdy’s attention to detail when it comes to his land. Dowdy and Lee’s suspicions that co-mingling of the top and sub soils in the fields was confirmed just last week after an irrigation supply line to the pivot began leaking. It was Harrod, along with Dowdy and a Sabal Trail employee, who worked on the fix.
Dowdy says as soon as Harrod began digging, it was apparent that the Sabal Trail repair crew had paid little attention to BMPs when it came to replacing the soil.
“Sabal has created tremendous soil loss and erosion resulting in offsite movement into the wetlands, no question about that. Randy’s damages are almost incalculable,” Lee adds.
The regulators who approve construction management plans don't enforce them. They expect that the company will police itself. Company inspectors work for the company, not the landowners. The fox cannot guard the hen house.
“I shared pictures of the problems I was seeing with the Georgia Environmental Protection Department to show them things weren’t being done to regulations, hoping that they would take it up with Sabal,” says Dowdy. “But they said they needed to see it at the time it happened…that a later complaint wasn’t enough.”
Dowdy recalls he asked the agent “well where were you when it needed to be inspected?” He says the agent told him they didn’t have enough manpower to be everywhere along a 500-mile pipeline at all times.
“The only people inspecting what Sabal was doing to my land was Sabal,” says Dowdy. “The way I see it, it was like the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.”
Construction management, environmental protection, and agricultural impact mitigation plans are just that... plans. They offer no real protection for landowners. They're just pieces of paper. Don't be fooled.