Tanya Tweeton, an activist with the SouthEast Florida Sierra Marine and Water Quality Team, was seated in the hall outside yesterday’s Broward County Commission meeting, chatting nervously with three friends. The County Commission was set to vote on an ordinance to ban fracking, the process by which water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the ground to extract deep-seated oil. A few group members wore stickers with the words “Ban Fracking Now” decorated on their arms.
Chemicals used in fracking are potentially hazardous, and companies have pushed for laws that let them go without disclosing the chemicals to the public, in the name of protecting trade secrets. “I’m here because I don’t want my water polluted like Flint,” Tweeton said, referencing the fact that Flint, Michigan’s drinking water has become contaminated with lead. (Flint’s water, however, was not damaged by fracking.) “If the aquifer gets contaminated, that’s it,” she added. “The water will be poisoned.”
More than 50 activists showed up yesterday to support the ordinance, which Commissioner Beam Furr proposed after a company, Kanter Real Estate LLC, filed an application to drill an exploratory well in the Everglades, roughly five miles west of Miramar, to hunt for oil. Kanter owns roughly 20,000 acres of undeveloped Everglades land, and activists presume that if Kanter finds oil, it will frack the land to remove it.
Though oil companies claim the fracking process is safe, environmental advocates say the fracking fluid injected into the ground often leaks into the surrounding area, contaminating the climate – and especially water – nearby. The Everglades is one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world, and Kanter’s well sits not only within it but above the Biscayne Aquifer, one of South Florida’s largest sources of drinking water.
Before the vote, the South Florida Wildlands Association held a news conference in the lobby outside to support the bill.
The ordinance then passed unanimously – Republican Commissioner Chip LaMarca characterized water quality as both a “sanitation” and “justice” issue before voting – but the fight over fracking is far from over.
Just as the County Commission brought the ordinance to a vote, the Florida state Senate was considering a bill that would, if passed, nullify any fracking bans at the county level and give the state government sole power to regulate the process. The Senate appropriations committed advanced that bill, SB 318, on Monday, setting it up for a vote that could come by the end of the week.
Though Broward’s fracking ban passed with relative ease, virtually every supporter who spoke in front of the commission, as well as most commission members themselves, said they were concerned that Tallahassee appears to be “selling out” the county.
Karen Dwyer, an activist with the Stone Crab Alliance in Collier County, drove from Florida’s West Coast with her husband to join the protest. Tallahassee’s bills “would pre-empt home rule, diminish public safety, and fast-track fracking in Florida,” she said to the commission.
State legislators “defend their bills by saying that ’something is better than nothing,’” she added. “But their bills are something that is far worse than nothing. Their bills cripple local governments so that they cannot defend their citizens against the dangers of the oil industry.”
Matthew Schwartz, the Wildlands Association’s executive director, told New Times that even drilling an exploratory well could damage the Everglades immensely. “The people doing the permitting are geologists and engineers,” he said. “They’re not wetland experts.” He has long been confused, he said, as to why oil drilling rights always seem to trump the rights of local animals. “Oil rights trump panthers,” he said with a shrug.
He repeated the same sentiments in front of the commission – and, like many others, warned the county government that it could be in for a legal battle if Tallahassee’s bill passes.
Lake Worth Commissioner Christopher McVoy too showed up to speak to the commission.
“There is a huge disconnect between what you are courageously doing and what Tallahassee is doing,” he said. “But clearly there are going to be fights. The issue of home rule and who really gets to say who does what” will be an ongoing issue. “Gird your loins for a really big fight,” he said.
Before voting to approve the ordinance, Broward Mayor Marty Kiar said that, of all the times Tallahassee has tried to exert control over Broward, he felt this time was the most egregious.