Urged on by a coalition of engaged and alarmed citizens, public officials in Collier County yesterday stood up to a Texas oil company and the state Department of Environmental Protection and pressed on with their decision to sue for greater safeguards against acid fracking in the Everglades.
Meeting in Naples, the Collier County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to reject County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow's recommendation to enter secret settlement talks over the fracking. Instead they will sue to amend the Dan A. Hughes Co.'s drilling guidelines or, in the alternative, revoke its permit.
Collier residents and environmentalists statewide and nationally had been shocked to learn last month that the DEP had sanctioned Hughes for unauthorized fracking in an area of Collier County surrounded by the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks. Their dismay was compounded by the fact that the fracking and sanctions, including a $25,000 fine, dated to last December but were not disclosed through months of hearings this year on the Hughes Co.'s Florida activity.
Responding to those revelations, on April 22 the Collier Commission voted to authorize Klatzkow to file a challenge to the DEP's consent order over the fracking. The consent order required the company to hire "independent third-party experts" to report on the drilling and implement a cleanup plan. The commission's challenge 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, and that copies be provided to Collier County of all application packages for future oil and gas exploration, production wells, and class II injection wells, as well as all permit related correspondence, additional submittals, meeting minutes, and agency action.
In a memo to the commission, Klatzkow wrote that, following the April 22 challenge vote:
I received a telephone call from Matt Leopold, General Counsel to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Leopold had watched the Board discussion of the Hughes Oil Well matter, appeared very concerned, and expressed a strong desire to avoid litigation. I advised Mr. Leopold that I was under Board direction to file a Petition seeking administrative relief. I then received a second call, this time with Mr. Leopold and an agency member, who requested that Commissioner Nance be conferenced into the call. After Commissioner Nance joined the call, I had an open and frank discussion of the matter with DEP, who requested that the case be mediated prior to the initiation of the Administrative action. It is DEP's expressed belief that everyone involved would be more likely to discuss the issue in full candor in a mediation setting, in which all conversations are confidential, but that once litigation is commenced this will become impossible.
The Friday following the Board meeting, I forwarded a draft Petition to DEP, which was then forwarded to Hughes. That led to additional conversations, and at my request, DEP extended the County's time to file the Petition until May 15 to allow me to bring this issue to the Board today. Since that time, both DEP and Hughes have agreed to attend a Settlement Meeting (rather than mediation) with the County at DEP's Offices in Tallahassee. The Settlement Meeting would be held May 15th (conditioned on Board direction today) and I expect DEP to further extend the County's time to answer the Petition prior to the time this matter is heard. Because of timing and cost issues, the County Attorney concurs that this be handled as a settlement meeting rather than in a mediation setting.
In a live update from the commission meeting, Naples News reporter Greg Stanley tweeted: "No trust here for the DEP or any other state or federal regulators when it comes to oil. Not competent or capable enough to enforce safety."
And in a nicely detailed follow-up on the meeting, Stanley's colleague June Fletcher noted that :
Testimony and a report by a hydrologist the Conservancy [of Southwest Florida] hired, Noah Kugler, played a big role in the commission's decision.
Kugler discovered two abandoned dry-hole exploratory oil wells, drilled in the 1940s, near the Collier-Hogan well that were never properly plugged. He said DEP records showed the abandoned wells and their location, so this information would be known to both the agency and Hughes Co.
One was about 200 feet south of the horizontal portion of the Collier-Hogan well, and the other was about 2,500 feet west-southwest of the main bore hole. Both likely are extremely degraded, he said, and provide conduits into groundwater and aquifers -- and so should be properly plugged.
But he concluded that the unapproved activities at the Collier-Hogan well already might have introduced contaminants into water flow zones.
"There is a strong potential for existing and further contamination of groundwater," he said.
Fletcher further reported:
"I'm not interested in getting into a fight with the state, but this is an issue worth fighting for," Collier Commissioner Fred Coyle said, adding that whatever decisions the commission makes now will affect future generations.
In an email to New Times Dr. Karen Dwyer, a key figure in the citizen opposition to Everglades drilling, said this:
Another victory today as we hold the line against Everglades oil drilling and the Commissioners step back from private settlement and recommit to filing a petition to challenge the consent order. The administrative hearing will enable transparency and full disclosure with public input and multiple intervenors which means this is going to get HUGE. The Lawyer said the direction they were heading was toward stopping all Everglades oil drilling. The Commissioners want to ban fracking in Collier County. The most wonderful thing was seeing the 360 degree change in the Commissioners, now that they realize both Hughes and the DEP aren't interested in following regulations or protecting the public or environment.
New Times has requested comment from the Hughes Company and DEP. We will update when and if they reply.
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!