Adding Fuel to the Mire

A million gallons of petroleum has leaked into the environment at Port Everglades. So what's being done about it? Nothing.

"If we lose all our shrimp in here, who's to say all the shrimp aren't dying from here to there," says Baca, sweeping his arm out toward the Atlantic Ocean. "What if [the underground petroleum] is leaching out all the time, with every tide? It's the cumulative impact that can affect our waters."

None of the agencies responsible for the port, its contamination, or the Intracoastal could say if the amount of petroleum leaking into the waterway has increased. Kevin Carter, who oversees the county's water-quality testing program, hadn't seen the PEECO report and knows nothing of its findings.

Broward County took control of Port Everglades in 1994, and county commissioners are now responsible for setting policy at the port but have basically kept their noses out of the port's day-to-day business. Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger, who represents the southeast portion of Broward County including the port, says she doesn't know anything about the level of contamination there. She referred questions to Steve Somerville, director of the DNRP.

DNRP has no authority over the environmental aspects of the port's contamination or its cleanup because of the state "confess-your-sins" law, also known as the Early Detection Incentives program, which protects polluters from local government action. That whole idea of preempting local authority aggravates Somerville. "The question comes down to who's in charge," he says. "The state has made it very clear that local governments are not in charge.... If local governments were allowed to do what local governments do, we wouldn't have this problem." Somerville referred questions about the health of the Intracoastal to the state DEP.

Mike Sole, chief of the DEP's bureau of petroleum storage systems, says the state has 15,000 of these contaminated petroleum sites across Florida. He says he depends on someone in Broward County to notify him if there is a problem such as dead shrimp.

Allan Sosnow, the port's environmental projects manager and now a county employee, at first said DNRP monitored the Intracoastal's water-quality near the port but acknowledged when pressed that the testing was done north of the port at Southeast Seventeenth Street and south of the port at the Dania Cut-Off Canal. Those tests check for things like nitrogen and phosphorus levels but don't register petroleum contaminants. When asked why the port department doesn't monitor the water, Sosnow said there's no reason to. "The product is behind the bulkhead [the concrete sea wall], and the bulkheads have integrity so there is no leaching out of the material from the upland to the water," Sosnow says. "Whatever free-floating product we have doesn't really migrate, it just fluctuates up and down instead of laterally."

PEECO Executive Director Reece Andrews, a retired Shell Oil Company man, says his nonprofit organization is not monitoring the water nor has it since preparing its report five years ago. "We've got a pretty good idea what's down there," Andrews said but would not quantify it and instead criticized Schneider's estimate of 1.5 million gallons as too high.

Andrews also dismissed the idea of regular water-quality monitoring in the port area as too expensive and inconclusive in determining the source of contamination. But regular monitoring is the only way to show if the constant leaking of petroleum into the Intracoastal harms plants and animals in that area, says J.B. Miller, a biologist with the Florida Park Service and the resource manager who regularly visits John U. Lloyd State Park, across the Intracoastal from the port and just south of NSU's Oceanographic Institute. Damage from spills or one-time accidents are easily spotted, but a gradual decay over time must be scientifically monitored and cannot be noticed by the eye and casual walk-throughs, Miller says.

Absent any current water studies, state and county officials are left to trust the predictions of the five-year-old PEECO report, commissioned and paid for by the oil companies that created the contamination in the first place. The report predicts that the leaking won't get worse or harm wildlife. While that may satisfy Somerville, it doesn't explain why 1000 dead shrimp reeking of diesel fuel have sunk to the bottoms of their tanks a few hundred yards from the port.

"It's about more than just my shrimp," McMahon says. "This is my environmental community. People think if [the contamination] was that bad, somebody would be putting [the polluters] in jail. Well, it really is that bad, and somebody should be putting them in jail.

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