A Texas oil company's request for official permission to drill a wastewater disposal well deep into the Big Cypress watershed is the latest flashpoint in South Florida's enviro-wars. Next Tuesday, in Naples, EPA officials will hold public hearings on the proposal, with activists statewide planning to converge there and confront them.
The disposal well -- technically, a Class II underground injection well -- is intended to service an exploratory oil well for which the Dan A. Hughes Company of Houston has already won preliminary approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, though the oil well still faces legal challenges.
Both wells, and others the company plans, are located in Collier County, where Hughes mineral rights leases cover 115,000 acres including large portions of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve and Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, home to some of Florida's last old-growth cypress.
The company proposes to drill the injection well 2800 feet deep, into the "boulder zone" beneath the Floridan Aquifer. The wastewater to be stored there, a byproduct of the oil drilling process, is for the most part salt water, more saline and thus heavier than the salt water naturally occurring in the zone, so that theoretically it will not intrude into state drinking water supplies.
Allied against the Hughes company is a coalition of South Florida environmental groups. First to rise up were Naples-area residents alarmed at the prospect of oil drilling within 1,000 feet of some homes. Organized as Preserve our Paradise, they held demonstrations, wrote letters and flocked to DEP hearings, striking a chord with environmentalists statewide. Eventually they won the ear of Senator Bill Nelson, who prevailed on EPA officials to hold public hearings.
Critics of the drilling object to the project on several grounds -- the presence of heavy metals, radioactive substances and known carcinogens in the wastewater; a history of injection well failures and drinking water contamination; traffic congestion and safety associated with drilling; and the impact on the habitats of the Florida Panther and other wildlife.
The Hughes Company is a family operation, midsized by Texas standards (estimated annual revenues of about $65 million) though with operations worldwide. The company failed to respond to New Times' request for comment.
James Ferreira, an official with the EPA's regional office in Atlanta, told New Times his agency's main task is the protection of underground drinking water -- "That trumps everything else." He said the underlying geology of the Hughes leases has been "pretty well documented by the state of Florida and in university studies." As to the long term safety of injection wells in the area, he said, "Senior people at my office say there's never been a problem with Class II wells in Florida."
If the EPA is persuaded to retract its provisional approval of the injection well, the well is history, even with Florida DEP approval. "It's a dual-permitting process," Ferreira said. "They can't even put a hole in the ground."
It would also probably spell the end of exploratory oil drilling in the area, as wastewater would then need to be removed by truck or pipeline, neither of them cost-efficient. And beyond the immediate question of the injection well, preventing oil drilling in the Everglades is the environmentalists' ultimate goal.
"It makes no sense to be drilling in such an environmentally sensitive area," Jennifer Rubiello, a field associate at Environment Florida, told New Times. "And we don't need to use the aquifer as a trash can."
EPA Informational meeting and public hearing Tuesday, March 11, 4:00-6:00 p.m and 6:30-8:30 p.m. Golden Gate Community Center 4701 Golden Gate Parkway, Naples
Contact information about car pools to the hearing can be found here and here. Additional information available from Vickie Machado, Food & Water Watch; Phone: (954) 683-9422; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers politics, activism, the environment and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.