As Randy Dowdy walked along muddy turnrows under pounding January rains, he knew part of the topsoil from the farm that birthed the highest soybean yields in world history was gone. Staring across the wreckage of scoured fields, his record-breaking 171.7 bu. soybeans and 521 bu. corn from fall harvest faded far into the past.
Two months after the deluge, on a vital chunk of Dowdy’s south Georgia farmland in Brooks County, the topsoil has either been stripped or flipped, and replaced or mixed with fresh dirt. In agriculture, dirt is death and soil is life. Compounding the topsoil loss, 100 acres of wetlands caught much of the slurry as it spilled off Dowdy’s farmland. In essence, the wetlands were covered with a fertilizer blanket, according to Dowdy, with implications pointing toward a regulatory nightmare.
Dowdy signed an easement in 2015 giving Spectra Energy right of way across a mile of his land for the Sabal Trail pipeline, a 515-mile project running through Alabama, Georgia and Florida with the potential to move 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The project section on Dowdy’s land began just after fall grain harvest and was slated for completion the first week of 2017, but when hard winter storms arrived the third week of January, construction remained in process and the ground was relatively unprotected. In the aftermath, Dowdy faces complete and partial topsoil loss on 40-plus acres, decades of lost yield potential, sediment deposition across 100 acres of wetlands and woodlands, and a mounting farmland reconstruction bill expected to rise well over $1 million.
Who is to blame? Dowdy points the finger squarely at Sabal Trail and a series of alleged regulatory violations. In a case involving soil disturbance and potential bushel loss, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Dowdy concerning future yields projected over several decades. There is no Lazarus effect or applied alchemy to restore soil health, and ingredients can’t simply be added to a soil concoction to remedy an ill. Pared down, the soil sum is exponentially greater than its individual parts.
When Dowdy signed the Sabal Trail easement, the agreement included a stipulation: Sabal Trail would return all land to its pre-construction condition, both in fertility and deposition (topsoil segregated from subsoil). During right of way clearance (100’ width), topsoil was pushed off and placed on the right side of the pathway. An 8’ deep trench was dug to accommodate a 3’ diameter gas line.
Dowdy’s ground runs at a steep 10% to 12% grade, and is deemed highly erodible by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Cover crops and a series of terraces control water runoff and slow the flow to a 1% grade equivalency. Minimal erosion settles in the terraces and Dowdy manually places sediment back onto fields. The gas line runs predominantly north to south, while Dowdy’s terraced farm fields often run east to west. Essentially, the gas line runs perpendicular and breaks through every terrace.
On Dec. 6, a month before scheduled completion, Dowdy contacted Sabal Trail management, expressing concern over erosion signs and emphasizing the sensitivity of his farmland. According to Dowdy, he contacted Sabal Trail management multiple times in December and was assured construction would be completed by the first week in January. Sabal Trail declined interview requests citing privacy concerns. Parent company Spectra Energy didn’t respond to phone or email questions. “I texted again Jan. 9 and nothing was done,” Dowdy says. “No rebuilt terraces, no cover crops, and no restoration.”
Roughly two weeks later, Georgia skies ripped opened and Dowdy’s topsoil was exposed to heavy rains. Across a 180-acre farm, two-thirds of the runoff was headed directly for the terraces. Sabal Trail had placed sediment barriers at the mouth of each terrace, but the barriers acted like corks, backing up water into the fields until the watershed surrendered to gravity, escaping across barriers, over terraces, around right of way mounds and into a creek. A gentle 1% grade became a precipitous 10% to 12% cascade. Dowdy’s meticulously crafted elixir of protozoa, microbials, and organic matter was whisked away into the creek and surrounding woodlands. Bon voyage to soil health.
Dowdy says the topsoil disaster was a direct result of Sabal Trail negligence in following the Georgia Soil & Water Commission’s Green Book (Manual for Erosion and Sediment Control in Georgia) regulations. “Sediment barriers in concentrated flows of water; no straw covers; no safety sediment fences; and many more violations,” Dowdy contends. “They were not in compliance with a bunch of measures.”
When Sabal Trail arrived to repair the damage and finish construction, the glaring topsoil absence was impossible to fix. “They couldn’t find anybody to sell native topsoil to fill my loss,” Dowdy says. “Are you kidding? Who is going to sell the very lifeblood of their fields?”
Dowdy began negotiating with Sabal Trail over restoration expenses. At Sabal Trail’s request, he provided three estimate areas. One: costs of topsoil purchase, extraction, hauling, grading, soil health applications, and terrace reconstruction. Two: estimation of damage to wetlands. Three: long term yield loss projections. According to Dowdy, Sabal Trail management agreed to pay for topsoil restoration and allowed him to begin the process.
He began hauling in topsoil (not prime Tift topsoil to match his ground, but a lower grade replacement) with 8 to 18 trucks per day, one excavator, one motor grader, two bulldozers, two tractors, hay blowing equipment, and a painful daily price tag up to $25,000. Before Sabal Trail would write a soil restoration check, Dowdy was required to sign a release waiving compensation for future yield loss and wetlands damage. “They knew I would spend $700,000-plus and were squeezing me, but there was no way I would sign,” he explains. “I want the truth out there. I want people to know the facts.”
In March, Dowdy filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of Georgia. EPD enforces Green Book regulations, but only monitors potential construction project violations on a complaint basis: A single representative in south Georgia covers nine counties. “We have to rely on people letting us know about issues. However, we investigate every single complaint we get,” says Burt Langley, EPD’s director of compliance.
Joe Freeman, environmental compliance officer with EPD, visited on-site March 10 and didn’t see any BMP violations that day. “Mr. Dowdy has already undertaken the re-terracing of his fields and the evidence is effectively covered. It may have been different if I’d seen things in December,” Freeman says.
Freeman is currently waiting to receive Sabal Trail’s on-site records for review. “As far as woodland damage, I can’t prove the soil was deposited as a result of the Sabal Trail project,” he adds.
“Landlords can’t possibly know how to translate complicated compliance permits,” Dowdy responds. “The gas companies bank on farmers not knowing all the precise rules. If EPD can’t monitor these companies, then who can? There's obviously a need for more staffing so EPD can do its job and protect landowner rights and interests.”
Dowdy doesn’t mince words: “The only people involved in reviewing compliance with permitting standards are on Sabal Trail's payroll. Isn't that the fox guarding the henhouse? What's the point of having an agency that issues permits if they don't personally police for compliance?”
Dowdy contends he sent date-stamped photo evidence to Sabal Trail management on the date damage occurred: “Are photos of wetlands, woodlands and ag field damage insufficient for regulators to act?” he asks.
On March 11, responding to an irrigation line leak in the right of way, Dowdy found evidence of jumbled soil deposition and says it is a clear violation of Sabal Trail’s permit and agreement. Rance Harrod, irrigation manager with Nashville Tractor, operated an excavator to expose the leak source. “I pushed off a couple of inches of topsoil and hit at least a 6” layer of a hard clay and blackish dirt mix. The excavator was struggling and the ground was coming up in chunks,” Harrod explains.
Below the clay (Harrod normally hits clay around 2’) the ground was a soft mixture of soils. “After the first 2”, I didn’t hit pure topsoil again until almost a 1’ down,” he notes. In succession, Harrod scraped off 2” of topsoil, 6” of hard clay, and 10” to 15” of various mixtures before digging into the expected bright orange Georgia clay. “I’m not a soil expert, but it was plain to see as I went down,” he says. “It was clay and soil all mixed up.”
“Even the soil that was saved and put back on my land wasn’t segregated. There are 2” on top to fool me, and everything below is topsy-turvy,” Dowdy says. “How do other landowners know this hasn’t been done on their land? Farmers and landowners are just supposed to sign a release and the story is over?”
“The only burial of evidence has been on Sabal Trail’s part. Their permit requires soil segregation. When they repaired my fields, they left enough soil on top to make me feel good about it, but now I can prove that my soils are entirely mixed,” he adds.
Dewey Lee, agronomist with the University of Georgia, knows the history of production on Dowdy’s ground and says the ramifications of soil disturbance and erosion are incalculable due to topsoil loss. In addition, the mixing of Randy's topsoil with some of the subsoil during restoration has significantly reduced soil quality and yield potential, according to Lee. The departure of organic matter, soil bacteria and fungi creates a snowball of mounting loss.
And what about replacement dirt hauled in by Dowdy? “It’s impossible to replace the positive effects of Randy's management on his soils in a short period of time. Just in the disturbance, you lose aggregation, organic matter, fertility, and nutrients,” Lee states. “Now he starts with a different ion exchange capacity and nutrient capacity, and he’s lost structured water-holding capacity. The negative effects are immediate, but of far more concern, the long-term effects could last decades.”
Lee says the complexity of Dowdy’s loss is magnified by the complexity of benefits formerly contained in his soil. Dowdy kept meticulous yield records on his ground, registering the positive effects of inputs and soil fertility management to attain a degree of predictability. That predictability, according to Lee, is over and all overriding questions about Dowdy’s topsoil future are hindered by a glaring fact: The topsoil is gone or mixed. “How do you quantify loss when the soil is washed away?” Lee asks. “We’re talking about future productivity losses that are incalculable because they’re so high. Add in wetlands damage and the questions are even more overwhelming.”
In some quarters, the environmental damage is more alarming than Dowdy’s topsoil loss. Fertilizer dumped into a wetlands environment is regulatory chaos, and the water-soil mix that sloughed off Dowdy’s farmland carried a tremendous payload of fertilizer residue now spread across 100 acres, he says. Dowdy reports nearly a foot of soil deposition at the base of many trees.
Dowdy believes he’s facing a lifetime of loss on the affected ground entirely due to the negligence of Sabal Trail. He’s hauled in over 1,000 loads of new dirt and expects he’ll need at least 800 more loads. In part, the breadbasket topsoil of the world’s record soybean yield and some of the highest corn yields is being replaced by a forced substitute.
“I want the truth out there so people know what happened. It’s one thing to rebuild terraces, haul in topsoil, bring in hay and straw, put down cover crops, and spread chicken litter,” he says. “It’s another thing to gain soil life from dead dirt.”