The Florida Department of Environmental Protection yesterday announced it would take legal action against the Dan A. Hughes Co., the Texas oil prospectors busted late last year for unauthorized drilling in the Big Cypress Swamp watershed. Tough talk, but it could mean little more than locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.
DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said the agency, "in order to address violations" by Hughes, would "seek to shut down operations" at the drill site "until pending completion of appropriate environmental testing." Hughes has already suspended operations, but if the DEP follows through, the suspension could be permanent.
The move came as a pleasant shock to Florida's environmentalists, among whom the joke has long been that DEP stands for "Don't Expect Protection." So either (1) the skeptics (including New Times) were wrong and DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard is green to the core, (2) Vinyard (and his boss, Rick Scott) have had a "come to Jesus" moment (as the November election approaches), or (3) there's more (or less) to the announcement than meets the eye, and "appropriate environmental testing" is a "get out of jail free" card.
The promised lawsuit is the latest turn in a story that began in April of last year, when residents of the Naples suburb of Golden Gate Estates learned they were living in a "hydrogen sulfide evacuation zone" because of Hughes' nearby drilling. Citizen concern boiled over this spring when it was learned, after months of hearings, that the DEP had -- the previous winter -- sanctioned the Texas drillers for using a technique known as "acid fracking" on a well site not far from the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary -- and that the state had kept that information from the public.
Faced with such scandal and discontent, the Collier County Board of Commissioners joined the fray. The commission challenged the DEP, Dan A. Hughes, and Collier Resources (which leased its drilling rights to the Texans) to put up or shut up about public safety and environmental degradation. The commission sued to have the well's permit pulled, and last Friday, the drillers folded their tents and left town.
One Hughes/Collier Resources project was going to remain active, however, the one where last year's fracking violation occurred and which the company just suspended. With yesterday's DEP announcement, it may remain shut permanently, depending on the drillers' long-range plans and what the agency means by "appropriate environmental testing."
One key figure in citizen resistance to oil drilling in the Everglades, Dr. Karen Dwyer of Collier County's Stonecrab Alliance, was "ecstatic" over the DEP announcement. But, she added, "Hughes cannot be trusted anywhere near our water or Everglades. DEP should revoke the permit just as they should have done over seven months ago when the illegal fracking first occurred."
Here's the full text of the DEP's announcement:
TALLAHASSEE -- Today, as the July 15 deadline for Dan A. Hughes to comply with department demands comes to a close with its demands unfilled, DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. made the following announcement:
"DEP will file a lawsuit against the Dan A. Hughes Company to address violations at the Collier-Hogan well. After months of holding Dan A. Hughes accountable for unauthorized activities at the Collier-Hogan well site, it is clear that the Company has not taken seriously the Department's demands to protect Collier County families or Florida's natural resources. This suit will seek to shut down operations at the Collier-Hogan site, until pending completion of appropriate environmental testing.
This lawsuit will be brought before a Collier County circuit court judge. In the lawsuit, the Department is seeking additional financial penalties and to shut down all the operations at the Collier-Hogan well. The Department will ensure Dan A. Hughes is accountable for its actions in the state of Florida."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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