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How a Flooding Crisis Unearthed Another Environmental Injustice in Rural Alabama

Overlapping crises in Alabama demonstrate the harm that oil and gas infrastructure is causing Black communities, residents and experts say.

Captured methane emissions from the breakdown of organic waste in landfills and other sources can be refined to create a fuel known as "renewable" natural gas, though the science behind the term is heavily debated. (Getty Images)

Brought on by years of incessant flooding, Timothy Williams’ home is sinking — and fast. Over the past few years, it’s sagged nearly 2 feet deeper into the constantly swelling and shrinking clay soil across rural Coffee County, Alabama. 

He’s not alone. Roughly a dozen of his neighbors in the historically Black community have spent thousands of dollars attempting to fortify their houses — many of them mobile homes — against the flooding events brought on by heavy rains. The average resident makes just $18,000 annually. 

And now the community has a new crisis brewing under their properties: a 2-foot-wide methane gas pipeline. Williams’ daughters sleep in his home’s back rooms that, he says, everyday inch closer and closer to disaster. 

“If the house sinks into that line, everything is gonna blow,” he told Capital B. “My daughters would be dead immediately. We’re praying and hoping that we’ll get some resolution because the rain isn’t gonna stop.”

In June, Capital B reported on the Shiloh community’s flooding emergency brought on by the expansion of a highway that is now in the middle of a federal civil rights investigation brought by Williams against the Alabama Department of Transportation.

He claims the highway’s new drainage system was constructed to flood out his neighborhood so the community’s Black landowners would be more likely to sell their properties to industrial companies.

What he didn’t know, however, was at the same time as the highway’s expansion, the Alabama Department of Transportation struck an agreement with the private gas company Southeast Gas to relocate a pipeline along the highway. Capital B has confirmed this information through a Southeast Gas representative.

The overlapping crises impacting Williams’ Shiloh community in Coffee County is a textbook environmental justice situation, according to Robert Bullard, a Coffee County native who is often called the father of the environmental justice movement.

For Bullard, it shows that the country is still failing to understand the harm that oil and gas infrastructure causes communities of color, exemplifying a situation where the cumulative impacts of new infrastructure — no matter how positive it may seem — were not considered before being built. 

Ironically, the pipelines’ impact on the community was ushered in by the country’s clean energy transition. Last year, Southeast Gas struck a deal with Coffee County to extend the pipeline to a new type of methane gas plant that has been called “renewable” and included in subsidies in the nation’s largest-ever climate bill. 

However, the science behind these plants’ positive climate impacts are heavily debated. The state of California settled a lawsuit earlier this month barring industrial companies from calling the gas “renewable.” 

Read More: How Biden’s Goal to ‘Electrify Everything’ Contributed to a Flooding Crisis

Williams discovered the pipeline only after assessing his house following a flood event. He said no markers outlined the pipeline’s path, despite such warnings being required by law. Since then, flag markers now dot the pipeline’s route behind homes. 

When Williams reached out to Southeast Gas following the discovery, he said a representative coyly told him, “’I’d be scared, too, if [the pipeline] was that close to my house,’” and that nowhere else in the county were homes closer to the pipeline than in the historically Black community. 

Nationwide, gas pipelines are most likely to run through poorer and Blacker communities. Likewise, neighborhoods with greater shares of low-income and non-white residents experience the most gas leaks from such infrastructure. Since 2010, one-third of all pipeline leaks have led to fires, killing more than 140 people

“Highway expansion, in this case, created a flooding problem made worse by climate change and increased rains,” said Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. “The pipeline expansion is then a continuation of that old pattern that creates environmental injustice and disposes of poor communities of color.”

It’s “Alabama being Alabama,” he added, mentioning another civil rights complaint about an environmental injustice in neighboring Lowndes County.

Betting big on “renewable” natural gas

Earlier this year, the pipeline, which runs the entirety of Coffee County and stretches 600 miles to Florida, was extended to connect to a new gas plant constructed on the county’s landfill. The facility will be operated by the Florida-based utility giant NextEra Energy.

The plant’s construction comes on the heels of the Biden administration creating tax credits through the Inflation Reduction Act for industrial companies to build such plants, which the government has called a “carbon-neutral or carbon-negative” power source aligning with goals to lower pollution nationwide. Climate scientists and environmental activists have disputed the framing

Nationwide, 30% of human-caused methane emissions — the most potent greenhouse gas — come from the breakdown of organic wastes in landfills, sewage treatment plants, and farms. Instead of letting that methane directly enter the atmosphere, the gas can be captured and refined to create a fuel known as RNG. The RNG is then injected directly into existing pipelines, where the fuel mixes with fracked fossil gas and can be used to heat homes and power buildings.

In theory, RNG can cut overall emissions when used to displace fossil-fuel-derived natural gas, although both fossil and ​“renewable” gas are composed primarily of methane. 

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Experts contend, however, that the practice encourages the continued growth of waste at landfills and commodifies methane pollution by turning it into something companies can profit from. It also ensures that fossil fueled gas remains a central part of the country’s energy plans.

As Coffee County Environmental Services Director Mike Thorton said last year, “Economics plays into the development of [RNG]. … It’s really the cost of the gas that’s driving these projects.”

Climate experts argue that RNG’s continued growth will play a small role in lowering greenhouse gas emissions because methane gas pipelines are prone to leaks, offsetting most benefits associated with its use. 

Southeast Gas declined to share leakage rate data, saying the company “employ[s] modern leak detection and procedures and address[es] any leaks in compliance with all regulations.”

Studies have shown that a gas pipeline leakage rate of just 0.2% can make the fuel worse for the climate than coal and negate the climate benefits of switching from diesel to RNG. Across the country, natural gas pipeline leakage rates average between 2% and 3%, with more than 630,000 pipelines leaking methane into the atmosphere at any given time.

Still, the U.S. gas industry has bet big on RNG, touting it as a revolutionary climate solution, benefiting the environment and the economy just as much as wind or solar energy. 

Last fall, BP, Shell, and NextEra invested more than $7 billion in RNG production as the Biden administration opened up millions in tax benefits. Reuters described the explosion of RNG plants as a “land grab,” where energy companies have snagged landfills across the country, akin to how they bought up land during the oil boom. NextEra declined to comment for this story. 

And like the oil boom, the infrastructure needed to support the new industry comes at a cost to marginalized communities. With the increase of natural gas production nationwide, energy companies and government agencies aren’t “adequately dealing with the history of the devastation that oil and gas has had on communities of color,” Bullard said. 

The build out, he said, “is about making money for the corporations exporting gas, not for making the country energy independent from fossil fuels and harmful climate impacts.” 

‘Is it just about economics?’

Coffee County has been open about the economic benefits of its partnership with NextEra Energy and Southeast Gas. The goal of the plant, Coffee County Attorney Rod Morgan said, is to create a “beneficial reuse” of the land that produces “some revenue for the county.” 

“For nearly four years,” Morgan wrote to Capital B, “the County considered a number of various projects before bringing the project with NextEra to fruition.” Neither NextEra nor the county has publicly made the contract’s financial terms available. However, local media reports the deal will “generate several hundred thousand dollars or more” annually for Coffee County, which would amount to less than 5% of the county’s general budget.

NextEra’s reach across the Southeast has risen sharply over the past decade. Since 2013, according to Forbes, NextEra’s assets have grown by $100 billion, making it the 135th largest company in the world. With the growth, the company has been accused of using its power to dictate local elections and legislation across the region. 

The estimated multimillion dollar deal between the county and the energy giant went under the radar for many residents. The county unanimously approved the project in June 2022, although local media did not report on the agreement until that September. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management granted the project its operating and air pollution permits earlier this summer. The county hopes the plant will be operating fully by spring 2024.

It is unclear how extensive community engagement was surrounding the plan to build the plant. Williams said no one in his neighborhood knew about the plant until Capital B brought it to their attention. 

Markers show the path of a recently constructed pipeline behind Timothy Williams’ home (Courtesy of Timothy Williams)

Morgan said the county held one “project kickoff event” regarding the plant, and the County Commission spoke publicly about it during open commission meetings. Regardless, Bullard and Williams believe the county neglected its duty to examine and share the environmental justice implications of the new facility. 

“So, is it just about economics?” Williams said. “Because it doesn’t benefit us. Before they did the highway [through Shiloh], nobody had natural gas. Most homes still don’t.” (Southeast Gas supplies natural gas to roughly 9% of properties in the 18 Alabama counties it operates in.) 

Ultimately, Morgan said, the new gas plant and expanded pipeline will benefit the region. “This is a project we are quite proud of,” Morgan said. “A win-win opportunity for all parties involved, including the local government and the surrounding community.”

Following Capital B’s initial reporting on the flooding situation in the community, Williams said he received a direct call from Cynthia Ferguson, the director of the Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Justice. However, the community has yet to receive proposed solutions. 

Meanwhile, homes in the neighborhood remain slowly sinking toward a high-pressure pipeline. In 2019, a similar-sized natural gas pipeline burst, killing a 58-year-old grandmother who was more than 640 feet from the explosion point. 

Williams’ home is 8 feet away from the Southeast Gas pipeline.

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