Part 1: Renewed Push For Oil In Florida Sparks Concern In Southwest Florida

Jun 28, 2014

A Southwest Florida town has been in turmoil for the better part of a year over a renewed push to explore for oil in a reserve that stretches like a belt from Fort Myers to Miami. That push, and the actions of the companies doing the exploration, have some residents and environmental groups at war over what they see as an effort to bring fracking to Florida.

Oil Exploration In, Around Sensitive Lands Sparks Concern

At the Corkscrew Swamp Conservatory in Naples ancient Bald Cypress trees stretch to the sky, and a variety of birds engage in dangerous games of chicken with alligators hiding in the bogs. Signs warning of bear and panther crossings are common. The swamp has become a focal point in a local fight over oil.

“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to have some concerns about lights, noise, trucks and roads that are associated with large-scale production," says Brad Cornell who represents Audubon Florida in the western Everglades region of the state.

It's a place where Florida’s endangered panthers call home. They share Corkscrew Swamp with bears and Woodstorks. The area sits on top of an underground oil reserve known as the  Sunniland Trend and a few miles away from the swamp is the source of the concern.

In the distance, across fields of crops and tall trees, stands four stadium grade floodlights looming over an otherwise flat landscape. This is what remains of an oil exploration rig run by an outfit out of Texas, called the Dan A. Hughes Company. The company was recently fined in December by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for what critics have called “fracking-like” activities. Fracking is the term given to a controversial oil extraction method that uses chemicals and high pressure to break up rock in order to get to the oil underneath. Some people believe it is responsible for an increase in earthquakes and contamination of groundwater in states like Pennsylvania Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Questions about what happened at the Hughes site has created a firestorm in Collier County, where back in May, the county Commission decided to challenge the state over the unauthorized activity at the Hughes site.

“We’re new to this process, but pumping chemicals into the group to extract oil in Collier County has serious implications for the safety of our residents," said Commissioner Fred Coyle during that meeting.

DEP Takes Action...Nearly 7 Months Later

“The distinction between the activity that occurred here versus that in other sites, is that ...there was substantially lower pressure at this site than is found in other hydraulic fracturing activities," said Florida DEP Deputy Director Danielle Irwin during a conference call with reporters recently.  The department has started testing the area around the well for signs of contamination, four months after disclosing the incident, and about seven months after the "unauthorized activity" first occurred.

When asked by reporters why the department waited so long—first to disclose the December incident, and then to monitor the groundwater DEP Waste Management Director Jorge Caspary said, it’s not too late to start.

"I think the detection units we have—we will be able to detect parts-per billion so we’re confident the testing and analysis of over 100 chemicals will tell us what’s going on over there," Caspary said.

Delay, Lack of Transparency Creates Suspicion

The effort isn’t reassuring people who are becoming increasingly suspicious of Dan A. Hughes, DEP, and the company that owns the land--Collier Resources. Among the local activists jumping into the fray: Karen Dwyer, a former English teacher, decades-long Collier resident and activist.

“Our worry is, when we started looking at state legislation about this...they told us there are no regulations in place," Dwyer says. "That the regulations have not kept up with extreme extraction.”

The major issues the Dwyer’s along with the Collier County Commission and environmentalists like the Audubon society have is the impact on water. Companies have to drill through the regions aquifer to get to the oil. If that drilling causes contamination—the results could be calamitous for the people, plants and animals in and around the site.

Meanwhile, the Hughes oil well debacle has only added more fuel to a separate battle over a proposed oil exploration site—which will back up to a neighborhood—and has one couple considering a move elsewhere.