Environmentalists took one on the chin Tuesday when Collier County officials voted to drop a lawsuit they'd filed against the Department of Environmental Protection over the state's policing of fracking by Texas oil prospectors in the Great Cypress Swamp watershed.
Collier's Board of County Commissioners in April voted to file the suit, in response to public fury over the February disclosure -- after months of public hearings on the controversial drilling -- that Houston-based Dan A. Hughes Company was found to have violated state law late last year. The company had used a technique known as acid fracking on a well site adjoining the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks, a species just recently taken off the endangered species list.
The DEP had tried to scare county officials off the suit but the commission refused, lacking faith in the state agency's commitment to rigorous enforcement. Late to the game, in July the state took legal action of its own against the drillers. In response, the Hughes Company and Florida land baron Collier Resources, holder of 115,000 acres of mineral rights leased to the Texans, announced the cessation of all the company's activity in Florida -- except that on the Collier-Hogan well, where last winter's acid fracking occurred.
At yesterday's hearing state officials sold the Collier Commission on the belief in a new, more aggressive DEP. As reported on NPR affiliate WGCU:
State Environmental Protection Chief Herschel Vinyard appeared before Collier commissioners to urge county officials to partner with his agency as the state drafts new oil drilling rules.
"I would appreciate and welcome your input in partnership in what's going on in the 2015 legislative session," Vinyard said.
...Collier County Commission Chair Tom Henning said DEP's action is a sign the agency is serious about protecting Southwest Florida's natural resources.
"We need to be partnerships with the agency, not fighting the agency," he said "Now, they are proving that they have our best interests at heart by going after Dan A. Hughes, which is exactly what we wanted."
The citizen activists who pushed the officials to take action were outraged by the commission's procedure and the timing of its decision. As reported in the Naples Daily News:
Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy [of Southwest Florida], said that by dropping their petition, commissioners lost their leverage to find out what really happened during the Hogan well procedure.
She said what happened at the well wasn't a natural condition, and that since the older abandoned wells weren't capped at today's standards, they still could act like "straws" that could allow the flow of contaminants either up or down.
She also wanted to know what happened to half-a-million gallons of flowback material from the well, which isn't accounted for in trucking logs.
"I don't think we got safeguards," she said.
John Dwyer, a member of the Stonecrab Alliance environmental group, was appalled that citizens weren't allowed to speak on the oil issue at Tuesday's meeting.
"We were stabbed in the back," he said.
The Collier Commission has left open the possibility of joining with the DEP in the state's ongoing legal action against Hughes.
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.