Adding Fuel to the Mire

David McMahon knew something was wrong with his breeding experiment with Florida shrimp when he saw dozens of his subjects lying dead on the bottom of their tank. Normally a glassy blue in color, the shrimp had turned bright orange, as if they had been cooked up for paella. The stench of diesel fuel emanated from their tanks, which were propped on the edge of the Port Everglades channel.

Over the next few days, all 200 of his crustaceans would die, their shells eventually blotted with the black evidence of the petroleum McMahon says came in with the seawater he pumped into their tanks from the channel.

McMahon and Bart Baca, his professor at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Institute, say a rainbow-colored sheen -- the telltale sign of spilled petroleum -- regularly floats across the Intracoastal Waterway to their lab. The researchers believe the fuel has killed about 1000 shrimp and other sea life in at least four experiments over the past eighteen months. Now when they see or smell diesel, all pumps are shut off and experiments are put on hold.

"It has been, at times, an everyday occurrence," McMahon says of the flow and smell of diesel. "It's a chronic problem, and it's going to affect the water table and the ecosystem. I think further research needs to be done to know where it's coming from, and it needs to be done now."

Tough talk from an idealistic student. The reality is that no one is currently researching or monitoring the quality of the water around Port Everglades -- not the Broward County Port Department, not the Broward Department of Natural Resource Protection (DNRP), not the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and not the Port Everglades Environmental Corporation (PEECO), a consortium of petroleum companies that was created to study the extent of soil and ground water contamination at the port.

That lack of oversight wouldn't be a big deal if it weren't for a 1993 report that identified twenty pools holding an estimated 1.5 million gallons of petroleum floating on the water table under the port, and the fact that some quantity of it leaks into the Intracoastal Waterway every day. The report, commissioned and paid for by the oil company consortium, predicted that the contamination wouldn't hurt humans living nearby or the pristine environment to the south and east of the port. Good luck trying to find the person who knows for sure whether that prediction has come true, because no one has tested the water in the port since January 1993.

Fifteen petroleum companies got together in 1988 and formed PEECO in answer to a new state law that says if private companies fess up to their pollution, they will be protected from local government regulation and even given state money to clean up their messes. The resulting reports showed that the pools of petroleum under the port ranged in depth from a thin sheen to eight feet. Harvey Schneider, a scientist with the Broward County DNRP, estimated in 1996 that that meant at least 1.5 million gallons of petroleum were floating underground.

Port Everglades is the second busiest petroleum port on America's east coast. In 1997 about two dozen companies transported more than 100 million barrels -- 4.2 billion gallons -- of petroleum products such as crude oil, diesel fuel, and jet engine fuel through hundreds of feet of underground pipelines to above-ground storage tanks scattered around the port. In the port's 70 years of operation, a mixture of those petroleum products leaked from the pipelines and storage tanks and has sunk into the soil or puddled atop the ground water.

The PEECO report noted that each day .05 gallons of petroleum leaked through each foot of the protective concrete sea wall separating land from water. That amount, detected in 1993, was not enough to pose a threat to humans, animals, or vegetation around the port, according to the report, which was approved by the DEP. As a result the DEP ranked the contamination low on the cleanup list because the petroleum is neither likely to explode nor to migrate to public drinking-water wells that are west of the port. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gets involved only when contaminated sites pose serious threats to public health.

But petroleum, even in small concentrations, can be harmful to marine life. And chronic exposure to petroleum products can destroy not only adult marine animals but the mangroves in which they breed.

"Mangroves are the nursery for all the reef fish, invertebrates, all the ocean environment," McMahon says. "If we are destroying our nursery, we're destroying the reefs and all the other critters eating those fish."

Port Everglades is bordered on the south and east by lush forests of mangroves, those leggy-looking trees that cover marshy areas between Florida's water and land. The area around Port Everglades holds the largest stand of mangroves in Broward County. Mangrove roots, especially of the red mangroves that grow along the water's edge, get covered in algae, which provide the basis for a community of small organisms that in turn provide food for larval fishes, invertebrates, and forage fishes such as mullet, herring, and anchovy. These organisms then become the main food for other fish such as tarpon, snook, barracuda, and snapper. Baca estimates that between 70 and 90 percent of all fishes in the tropics spend at least part of their lives breeding or feeding in mangrove wetlands.  

"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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