In an ominous public statement this week, regulators at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection told Collier County officials to back off a legal challenge to a controversial oil-drilling operation in the Big Cypress Swamp watershed. In effect, the DEP told the Collier Commission "Trust us; we got this."
To which the Collier Commission -- angry at the DEP's response to Texas oil company Dan A. Hughes' unapproved drilling at site, and at the DEP's refusal to hold public hearings on the drilling -- replied, in effect, "Nuts!"
This showdown at a Commission meeting Tuesday was the latest turn in a story that began in late February, when Collier residents and environmentalists state- and nationwide learned that the DEP had sanctioned Hughes for unauthorized fracking at the Collier-Hogan well, located in an area of the county surrounded by the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks. The fracking and sanctions, including a $25,000 fine, dated to last December but were not disclosed through months of hearings on the Hughes Co.'s Florida activities.
On April 22, the Collier Commission voted to file a challenge to the DEP's consent order over the fracking. The commission sought:
additional provisions for oversight, safeguards, and monitoring to protect the environment and insure the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Collier County [and ] a protocol... that improves communication and coordination between the agencies regulating the Oil and Gas Program and Collier County local government
In response, the DEP requested that the commission hold off on the challenge and enter into talks with the Hughes Co. and the agency, prompting Collier Commission Chair Tom Henning to file a motion to reconsider the challenge.
That peace pipe went up in smoke, though, when newly appointed DEP Deputy Secretary Cliff Wilson told Henning Monday the agency would not agree to meet publicly. As a Henning news release described it:
...I felt FDEP was on the right track to meet with us and address our concerns, but the newly appointed Deputy Secretary has made it clear FDEP officials do not in fact wish to participate in an open forum and prefers private meetings in Tallahassee where Collier County residents would not be able to participate. This goes against everything all of us on the Board of County Commissioners stand for and that is an open public dialogue to learn what needs to be learned and take action where it needs to be taken
"I thought we could start a dialogue and resolve this without going through the legal process," Henning told the room at Tuesday's meeting, the Naples News reported. "We need to have an open dialogue with agency members where we can come to the conclusion, is the public being protected or not?"
Further fueling the commission's ire that day was a DEP preemptive strike, a news release with the inflammatory headline "Collier County Commissioners Thwart Enforcement Action Against Dan A. Hughes Oil." It read:
The Commission's decision to challenge the Consent Order is based on incorrect and incomplete information. Should the County choose to follow through with its challenge, this would cause the Consent Order to be suspended for the duration of the judicial review, effectively removing any obligations on Hughes contained in the Consent Order until the conclusion of litigation. Most importantly, it would remove the mechanism currently in place for DEP to require Hughes to perform the additional groundwater monitoring and investigations, depriving the public of the important information the study will yield, including discussion of any impacts that may have occurred to groundwater resources.
Commissioner Tim Nance, visibly angered, called the DEP news release, provided to the commission with 20 minutes' notice, "bizarre," "completely outrageous," "a threat" that "singularly makes me madder than anything. These are the people supposed to be working with us. They've got some issues."
The wording of the news release raises many questions, some of which New Times put to DEP media rep Dee Ann Miller. Here's how that's gone:
New Times: You say the Hughes well "must be operated in compliance with all terms in the existing permit, and all laws and rules of the state of Florida." The DEP press release says the Collier Commission's challenge to the consent order would:remove the mechanism currently in place for DEP to require Hughes to perform the additional groundwater monitoring and investigations, depriving the public of the important information the study will yield, including discussion of any impacts that may have occurred to groundwater resourcesIs it DEP's position that, absent the consent order, the state has no authority to "perform groundwater monitoring and investigations" to assure that the well is "operated in compliance with all terms is the existing permit, and all laws and rules of the state of Florida"? Does it lack the resources to do so?
Miller: The Consent Order is the legal mechanism that requires (and is the department's ability to enforce) this monitoring to be conducted by the company.
New Times: Are you saying the DEP has no other way to monitor the company?
Miller: No, that is not what I am saying at all. The Department's Oil and Gas Program helps to ensure compliance with rules and minimize environmental impact. The Department's Oil and Gas Program inspectors conduct thousands of scheduled and random well inspections per year to assure protection of surrounding property and all of our state's natural resources. Daily inspections are performed by DEP staff across the state for both wells and drilling operations... In the case of the Collier-Hogan well, the specific monitoring requirements included in the Consent Order are above and beyond permit requirements. The Consent Order is the only instrument requiring the company perform this specific monitoring. Please see the Consent Order for the details of its requirements.
New Times: 1) Is the consent order the result of an agreement between DEP and Hughes? Or is it rather a set of requirements imposed by DEP? Isn't it the case that the consent order only came about after DEP entered a cease and desist against Hughes? 2) If DEP has the authority to impose specific monitoring requirements above and beyond permit requirements doesn't it have the authority to itself do the monitoring?
That's the last we heard from the DEP.
Video of the Collier Commission meeting here:
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.