Department of Environmental Protection officials earlier this week told a state judge that they have no authority to deny a Texas oil company's plans to drill in the Everglades, in an area adjoining the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
In an April 15 status report to the state's Division of Administrative Hearings, where a challenge to the permit is under review, a DEP lawyer argued that a DEP advisory committee's recommendation against the permit was "beyond the Department's purview" and that "there is no basis, under its existing regulatory authority, to deny the application."
The well is a project of the Dan A. Hughes Co. of Houston and would occupy but a small part of the 115,000 acres of mineral rights the company has leased from Collier Resources, owners of more than 800,000 acres of mineral rights in Southwest Florida.
Enviros who had long organized and fought against drilling in the environmentally sensitive land -- and many of whom live in Naples' Golden Gate neighborhood, bordering the project -- had taken heart two weeks ago when the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee voted 3-1 against the Hughes permit. The committee recommended that:
- the [Hughes Company] bond should be increased to $1 million minimum per well and extended as indemnification for [a] period of 15 years in [the] form of [a] letter of credit from a major money center bank, or preferably from Collier Resources themselves to cover all incidents deemed harmful to any persons, property, land, or water in the area of drilling and any judgments arising therefrom. This would include private, state or federal lands.
- the [Hughes Company] develop and submit to the Department a plan to minimize the impacts of truck traffic near the Golden Gate neighborhood, avoiding late hours and school bus pick-up and drop-off hours when possible.
- the contingency plan be amended to include a spill plan up front to address spills both within and outside of the berm area.
And, the advisory committee concluded:
The Committee cannot insure that the exploration and production activities will cause no permanent adverse impact on the water resources and sheet flow of the area, or on the vegetation or the wildlife of the area, with special emphasis on rare and endangered species.
This is not the last word on the Big Cypress well, as the administrative hearings are ongoing and even the administrative judge's order is not final. DEP is required to issue a final order within 90 days of the judge's ruling, but the judge has no time clock.
In an interview with the Naples News, Matthew Schwartz, of the South Florida Wildlands Association, a plaintiff in the administrative hearing, said he was "extremely disappointed the DEP didn't listen to the advice of the experts who were brought in."
"I'm not surprised, though," he added. "DEP had the option early in the hearing to say that they blew it, but they stuck to it."
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.