The prosecution argued that the protesters had cost the Sheriff's Office and the Aggregates time and money.

The defense countered that the protesters were acting for the good of the community. "They [pursued legal avenues against the power plant] for years and years and years, and no one's listening," their defense attorney said. "Some of these guys are like Gandhi with a sweater vest!"

Judge Cohen told the jury they could find the defendants not guilty if "an imminent and impending danger made it necessary to commit the crime." In the end, the jury let all four off on the illegal assembly charge but found them guilty of trespassing and resisting an officer.

Dr. Sydney Bacchus is concerned about the plant's water use. Trees are already dying from dewatering, she says.
Deirdra Funcheon
Dr. Sydney Bacchus is concerned about the plant's water use. Trees are already dying from dewatering, she says.

But they sure felt bad about it. In the hallway after the trial, jurors gushed sheepishly to the activists that they admired their spirit. "Our hearts were all for you guys and gals," said a white-haired man who hadn't known of FPL's plans. "I live within ten miles of where the plant is being built. I think we're all appalled."

Even a juror who'd admitted owning FPL stock said he wasn't happy about the plant. "It needs more publicity," he said.

One juror quipped that if she'd been more aware, "I probably would have been one of the protesters!"

Collectively, the jury apologized for doling out the guilty verdicts but said they had to consider the rights of the businessmen and the cops.

The four defendants nodded politely and thanked them for the sentiment. But they couldn't really relate. They felt the same about their civil liberties as they did about the environment, several explained: Why compromise?

Environmental wars are fought not only at construction sites but in science journals and commissioned reports. FPL has a slew of scientists on its side — and on its payroll. They include staff as well as outside consultants. The environmentalists, in comparison, have two unpaid scientists as their main witnesses. Betwixt them is a subplot laced with intrigue.

Dr. Sydney Bacchus holds a PhD in the field of hydroecology. She describes herself as "the infamous Dr. Bacchus who says the secret words."

In 2005, she explains, she spoke out at a public hearing against a proposed mining operation in Central Florida. Soon afterward, a rival and supporter of the mine named Robert Kirkner complained that by testifying, she was practicing geology without a license. Bacchus says Kirkner's charges were based on her saying words like topsoil. Kirkner requested the Board of Professional Regulation to fine her $5,000 and publicly reprimand her. He was backed by another prominent geologist and mining consultant: Thomas Missimer, who would pop up later as a consultant for FPL's power plant. Bacchus saw their moves as an affront to her freedom of speech, and she fought back in court. She was eventually offered a settlement of $100,000.

Bacchus says her case illustrates how scientists can be quashed by business and political interests. "It's pretty astounding," she says. Because Bacchus owns her own environmental consulting company in Athens, Georgia, she is free to say what she pleases. Sometimes, that gets her labeled as "a typical tree-hugging environmentalist who really twists the facts to what support her cause," as an anonymous commenter called her online.

On a late summer day, Bacchus drove near the Aggregates site while jamming out to a CD by Eco Elvis (featuring songs such as "Viva Las Vegans"). The slender, long-haired scientist stopped her car and pointed to a batch of frail-looking pine trees that had lost their needles.

The dying pine trees, she said, are evidence of underground water sources being depleted. "You are watching the desertification of Florida," she warned. "When you suck the water out of the ground, you alter all of the surrounding environment." Trees die and dry out, making them susceptible to hurricane winds and turning them into tinder for wildfires. Animals lose their habitat. "The whole ecosystem collapses," she said sadly. Bacchus contends that the amount of water the West County Energy Center will draw daily is equivalent to the amount used by 500,000 homes.

In its application, FPL explains that drinking water sits about 1,950 feet below the ground. FPL intends to inject its wastewater much deeper, at 3,200 feet. A solid confining unit in the middle, FPL's paperwork says, "will prevent the upward migration of the injected fluids" into the drinking water.

Bacchus begs to differ. She describes the ground beneath us as fractured, with all subterranean water systems interconnected. Any wastewater pumped into the ground will eventually travel into the drinking water, she insists, as well as into regional lakes and marshes and even out to the ocean.

Dr. William Louda agrees. Louda, 61, is an environmental geochemist who teaches at Florida Atlantic University. He also holds a position on the Town Council in Loxahatchee Groves. In his office, wearing a cowboy hat and a pair of gray Levis, he plops down a briefcase and describes his concerns.

Think of Florida as "a carbonate sponge," he says, in which water percolates subtly between layers. He believes that injected wastewater could potentially migrate upward to taint the drinking water.

And, Louda says, guess who wrote a paper about the phenomenon of "Vertical Migration of Municipal Wastewater in Deep Injection Well Systems, South Florida, USA," in the Hydroecology Journal last year? Thomas Missimer, Bacchus' old foe who later testified on behalf of FPL. During his testimony, Louda says, Missimer ignored his own research. "I call him a geostitute," Louda says. "A person who sells his expertise for the benefit of his employer."

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