By Elly Benson, Sierra Club
Happy Earth Day. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC (the company behind the 515-mile Sabal Trail Pipeline) are celebrating by starting up a polluting compressor station in an environmental justice community that is a global hot spot for the COVID-19 crisis.
You read that right.
For years, residents of Albany, Georgia have been fighting Sabal Trail’s plan to operate this massive industrial facility in their community. In 2015, Georgia’s members of the Congressional Black Caucus told FERC that building the compressor station in “an already overburdened and disadvantaged African-American community” would be an environmental justice disaster. Now that environmental justice disaster is being compounded by another.
Albany has one of the highest per capita death rates from COVID-19 in the country. The coronavirus kills by invading and attacking the respiratory system. Sabal Trail’s compressor station will release dangerous air pollutants known to cause respiratory problems, decrease lung function, and make the lungs more susceptible to infection.
In fact, researchers have discovered a link between air pollution and COVID-19 death rates. A study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that an increase of only one microgram per cubic meter in fine particulate matter is associated with a 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The Albany compressor station has the potential to emit 9.14 tons per year of particulate matter.
Another study found that exposure to nitrogen dioxide may be one of the most important contributors to fatalities caused by COVID-19. The Albany compressor station has the potential to emit 46.77 tons per year of nitrogen oxides.
The population of Albany is more than 70 percent African American, and the compressor station is located in a neighborhood that is more than 80 percent African American. FERC has acknowledged that African American populations have an increased risk of experiencing negative health impacts due to decreased air quality. (FERC nonetheless has exhibited a disturbing pattern of approving pipeline companies’ plans to site compressor stations in predominantly African American communities.)
We know that FERC is aware of these grim statistics. Last week, the Sierra Club sent a letter to FERC urging it to deny Sabal Trail’s request to start operating the compressor station. The letter explained that the compressor station is located in an environmental justice community, that compressor stations emit harmful air pollutants that cause respiratory problems, that environmental justice communities are particularly vulnerable to increased pollution, that air pollution has been linked to higher COVID-19 death rates, that African Americans have been infected and killed at disproportionate rates across the country, and that Albany is a global COVID-19 hot spot.
Our letter requested that FERC halt construction of the compressor station and deny Sabal Trail’s request to place it into service. We also requested that, in light of Albany’s emergence as a COVID-19 hot spot, FERC prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to analyze the public health and environmental justice impacts of operating a compressor station that would further burden vulnerable populations. (Along with local partners, the Sierra Club previously challenged FERC’s conclusion that the impacts of the pipeline and compressor station would not disproportionately fall on environmental justice populations.)
Today, on Earth Day, FERC nonetheless approved Sabal Trail’s request to begin operating the polluting compressor station. As Dougherty County Commissioner Gloria Gaines stated, “It is egregious at the moment in time when our community is suffering from this dangerous respiratory disease, that disproportionately impacts environmental justice communities, for FERC to rubber-stamp this project without any review.
“It is an affront to our community.”