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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.

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Lucy Chabot

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