Critics of oil company plans to drill in the Everglades saw some of their worst fears realized late last week when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection revealed it had sanctioned Texas-based Dan A. Hughes Co. for unauthorized fracking in Collier County in an area surrounded by the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks.
The critics' dismay was compounded by the fact that the fracking and sanctions, including a $25,000 fine, date to last December but were not disclosed to public officials and citizens at last month's hearings on the Hughes Co.'s Florida activity.
Hydraulic fracturing, AKA "fracking," involves blasting millions of gallons of water and a slew of chemicals into the ground to fracture rock formations and release oil and gas. The practice's impact on the environment and human health is highly controversial. Under Florida law, drillers are permitted to label their chemical mixtures "trade secrets," exempting them from disclosure to the general public under Florida's "Sunshine" laws.
The Corkscrew Swamp well (Collier-Hogan 20-3H) is on property that is part of a lease by the Hughes Co. from mineral rights land baron Collier Resources. The lease's 115,000 acres include large portions of the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. (Ironically, Hughes President Dan A. Hughes chairs the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.)
Hughes' drilling has drawn fierce opposition from Collier County homeowners and South Florida environmentalists. Whether or not the drilling involves fracking -- and the public has been told it would not -- they object out of concern about air and groundwater pollution, traffic congestion and hazardous waste, and fear of the drilling's impact on the Florida Panther and other species. (According to Fractracker, Hughes' Golden Gate Estates well, southwest of the Corkscrew Swamp well, will use a process called "acid fracking.")
DEP announced the Corkscrew Swamp sanctions Friday, citing Hughes for:
an enhanced extraction procedure that had not previously been used in Florida. The company proposed to inject a dissolving solution at sufficient pressure to achieve some openings in the oil bearing rock formation that would be propped open with sand in pursuit of enhancing oil production.
A consent order between DEP and Hughes over the fracking was finalized April 8. But the timeline it describes places the fracking and DEP's response to it much earlier:
On Dec. 23, 2013, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection received a well completion procedure notice, also known as a workover notice, from the Dan A. Hughes Company, L.P. This request was for work to be conducted for well permit number 1349H, the Collier - Hogan well located south of Lake Trafford in Collier County....
The department had concerns about the workover notice... [and] requested Dan A. Hughes Company, L.P. not move forward with the workover procedure until additional review could be performed.
However, on Dec. 31, 2013, the department became aware the workover procedure had commenced, without approval. Because of the actions of Dan A. Hughes Company, the department was not afforded the opportunity to complete its review of the proposed procedure before operations began. As a result, a Cease and Desist Order was issued and the department immediately pursued formal enforcement.
In the interim between the initial order and its finalization, high-ranking DEP officials including Ed Garrett, administrator of the agency's Oil and Gas Program, attended a March 11 EPA hearing in Naples on the Hughes Co.'s Golden Gate well. Also in attendance were members of the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee, which had been instructed to advise DEP on the Golden Gate well by the administrative judge hearing a challenge to that project. A DEP briefing packet for the committee, prepared at Garrett's direction, makes no mention of the Corkscrew Swamp fracking. Additionally, the consent order between DEP and the Hughes Company over the fracking requires that "all submittals and payments" related to the order be sent to Garrett.
(In an October 4, 2012, email to Dr. Karen Dwyer, a leader in the citizen activist group StoneCrab Alliance, DEP's Garrett said it was the agency's position that an oil company
does not need to submit a permit application prior to conducting hydraulic fracturing, only a notification. The intent of the notification requirement is to allow us the opportunity to interject if our engineering staff does not accept that the operation will be conducted safely.)
The March 11 EPA hearing drew such a massive outpouring of impassioned citizens against the Golden Gate well that EPA extended its public comment period. In a second brief moment of hope for Hughes' opponents, on March 31 the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee recommended against the well. But on April 15 DEP told the administrative law judge the agency has "no basis, under its existing regulatory authority, to deny the application."
News of the DEP's December sanctions has shocked opponents of Everglades drilling.
In a text message to New Times, the StoneCrab Alliance's Dwyer wrote:
As we clearly warned for the last 12 months, extreme extraction, including fracking, was on the agenda, despite denials by the Dan A. Hughes Company. It is no surprise that the company has been caught illegally fracking, although it is absolutely unconscionable, and we do condemn it since it recklessly endangers our land water and air. It is surprising that the DEP would fail to disclose the Dan A. Hughes Company's criminal wrongdoing from the Administrative Judge, U.S. EPA, and Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee--all of whom were making crucial decisions on the company's highly controversial Golden Gate exploratory and injection well permits. Dan A. Hughes cannot be trusted to implement 'industry best practices.' They need to be shut down. The DEP and EPA should deny the still pending Golden Gate permits.
Ralf Brookes, attorney for Preserve Our Paradise, told New Times he plans to file a motion to introduce the Corkscrew Swamp consent order into the administrative hearings on the Golden Gate well, in which Preserve Our Paradise is lead plaintiff. In an interview Brookes said:
It's unbelievable it was not disclosed to the advisory committee at the EPA hearing. They were specifically asked about fracking. Twenty-five thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it's a drop in the bucket to these guys -- like a toll booth on a bridge. It looks like a knowing violation, not something you do by mistake. It may warrant a criminal investigation. But Gov. Scott seems to work with violators rather than go after them.
The final consent order in the Corkscrew Swamp fracking violation includes this language from DEP:
The [Hughes] Company contends that at all times it was operating lawfully under a valid permit and followed all applicable procedures required to conduct the Workover Operations described in Exhibit 1. [Exhibit 1 has been redacted as a "confidential trade secret."]
Neither the DEP nor Hughes has responded to New Times' requests for comment. The timing of the agency's announcement of the Corkscrew Swamp fracking sanctions was such that our requests for comment were made during a holiday weekend. We will update if and when responses arrive.
In the meantime -- thanks to the good work of investigative blogger Carl-John Veraja -- we've come across this YouTube video of Christian Spilker, senior vice president of Hughes partner Collier Resources, on the Naples News Sunday talk show of July 14, 2013, talking about fracking:
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers public affairs and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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