The Georgia Environmental Protection Division ordered the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. (TRANSCO) to cease work on its entire 115-mile natural gas pipeline Friday after a number of Bartow County landowners accused the company of environmental abuse.
They allege that TRANSCO violated the Georgia Wetlands Protection Ordinance by pumping construction sludge into wetlands protected by the Georgia Water Quality Control Act, which forbids draining, dredging, filling or excavating wetland areas.
“One day last week, I went out and my pond and all the swampy areas — quite a few acres — behind my house were full of this sickening yellow mud,” said Henry Mez, one of the property owners that complained. “You couldn’t see anything but mud.”
Mez said he heard sounds of running water and the soft hum of some type of machinery. Further investigation revealed electric pumps connected to large hoses pumping water from the pipeline excavation site to the adjacent wetlands.
To Mez, it was just another in a long line of broken promises by TRANSCO.
Henry and Rhonda Mez bought 18 acres of land on Euharlee-Five Forks Road in 1999 thinking it would be their retirement home.
“I grew up in Nebraska,” he said. “When I saw this land, it looked just like home, you know, wide open skies and when the wind blew, the grasses swayed like wheat fields — waves of grain.”
Across a meadow, Mez’s father used a backhoe to dig a pond with an island in the middle. His stepfather, a bridgebuilder, built a suspension bridge over to the island. In the center of the bridge, a big red bolt like the ones used to build the Golden Gate Bridge, is embedded. Both men are gone now, the little park a lasting legacy from them.
A nearby water oak became the symbolic gathering place for the Mez family and friends.
But in 2014, TRANSCO, a subsidiary of Williams Partners LP in Tulsa, Oklahoma, announced plans to build the Dalton expansion project — a 115-mile pipeline transporting natural gas to the southeastern United States.
A 120-foot wide swath of land would cut smack-dab through the middle of Mez’s property taking the old oak.
When TRANSCO representatives showed up on Mez’s steps to make an offer, Mez told them it was way too low and he refused.
“I wanted to get a fair price for what I have,” he said. “If there’s a pipeline coming down through the middle, anyone who might be interested in buying it will see it and look elsewhere. We wouldn’t have bought this property if there was a pipeline in the middle of it.”
Mez said the TRANSCO representatives threatened to use eminent domain — which gives power to states, municipalities or certain private corporations to seize property for public use, following financial compensation to the property owner.
“They sent out surveyors,” Mez said. “Their first survey sent the pipeline right across the tree so we asked, ‘Is there anyway we can save the tree?’ The surveyors did another survey, This time it saved the tree.”
But Mez soon learned that TRANSCO planned to use the initial survey. The tree and the little park seemed doomed.
“That’s just not right,” Mez said. “First they said they would work with me and now they say the tree has to go.”
The next day, a Williams land agent accompanied by a Bartow County sheriff’s deputy approached Mez and assured him the tree would not be harmed.
Mez breathed a sigh of relief.
But the sigh didn’t last long, he said.
As he walked back to the wetlands to investigate the flooding, he spied his beloved water oak on a collision course with the wetland boundary marker.
“I don’t know why they can’t just leave things alone,” he said. “I love this tree. It represents so much to my family and me. They will say they want to work with you but then they just go ahead and do whatever they want with no use for our feelings.”
Friday morning, Mez received an email from Evans.
“Although we can’t confirm it,” it said. “We understand that the EPA/EPD has ordered all work stopped on the pipeline until TRANSCO installs or repairs adequate safety and silt fencing. The investigation continues.”
James Cooley, EPD Mountain District director said he could confirm that there is an ongoing investigation, “but that’s about all I can say.”