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Williston granted waiver for gas pipeline burial

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By Sean Arnold

There’s a discrepancy between Levy County and the Florida Department of Transportation in how deep a gas pipeline must be buried on along their respective right-of-ways.

The origin of the standard is unclear, but the county requires a minimum of 5 feet from the ground to the top of a pipe, while the FDOT’s standard – as well as the federal requirement – is 36 inches (3 feet).

At the meeting of the Board of Levy County Commissioners June 5, the Board granted a waiver to the City of Williston by a 4-0 vote, allowing it to install a 6-inch gas pipeline at 36 inches along a segment of county right-of-way spanning between 1,200 to 2,000 feet.

That portion of county right-of-way, stretching roughly from Williston Peanuts to FL-121, will constitute a small part of the planned seven-mile line. The remainder of the pipeline, of which the city has already secured permits, will be within an FDOT right-of-way, and so will only be required by default to be buried at 36 inches.

Williston County Commissioner Matt Brooks was not at the meeting.

Williston city manager Scott Lippmann said the city was making the request primarily due to the large limestone rocks in the area that could make the dig much more demanding.

“There are rocks the size of (the Levy County Courthouse) weighing 80 tons in the field by the new Williston Middle High School,” Lippmann said.

Lippmann added that, for safety reasons, digging deeper would also require digging a wider hole, which would impede more on the right-of-way. Furthermore, he noted that if anything went wrong with the pipeline, the gas would accumulate upward, creating more risk for an explosion if it were buried deeper than the other lines, as the gas could interact with the currents flowing through the lines.

“The right-of-way in that area is sufficiently wide enough that we could put a line at 36 inches and have adequate separation from the other lines that are there – phone lines and so forth,” Lippmann said.

After a long discussion, much of the Board’s skepticism was allayed when Williston utilities manager C.J. Tomasky mentioned that there was already a gas pipeline of similar size buried at 36 inches along that county right-of-way. There are also water and sewer lines.

“My concerns have been answered,” said Board chair John Meeks, “seeing as how we already have a precedent set – we’ve allowed it – and there’s enough right-of-way that things can be separated.”

Board vice chair Mike Joyner expressed concern for the county’s liability if it wavered on its usual 5-foot minimum. While Joyner was warned that Levy County can never be completely immune to becoming a target of a lawsuit in the case of an accident, David Peaton, of Levy County Emergency Management, assured the Board that the costs incurred from a pipeline breach – including the costs of responder services from Levy, Alachua or Marion County – would fall on either the pipe owner or the party responsible for its damage, as part of a hazardous material cost recovery ordinance.

The pipeline is not crossing any privately-owned land.

“This is a county right-of-way,” Lippmann said, “so, presumably, there’s no reason for anyone to dig out there unless the county approves.”

Lippmann said the pipeline running along the county right-of-way will be operating at a pressure of 100 PSI (pounds per square inch), while the transmission line it stems from will be at 800 PSI.

The county will continue to be responsible for the upkeep of the right-of-way area, such as landscaping, while the City of Williston is responsible for the markers above ground that indicate a pipeline is below, providing contact information in case of a breach of the line. The gas will be odorized, making it easier to detect a break.

Levy County attorney Anne Brown Best said she wasn’t sure from what authority the county’s 5-foot standard derived from, and questioned whether an approved waiver was even required. She said there were no new established regulations in anticipation of Sabal Trail, which, at 36 inches, is a much larger pipeline than the one Williston is planning to install.