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Part 2: Renewed Push For Oil Sparks Concern In Southwest Florida; Some Say Issue Is Overblown

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says test results show there has been no water contamination from an exploratory oil well drilled near a wildlife sanctuary in Collier County. The well is part of a years-long fight over a renewed push to explore for oil in a reserve running from Fort Myers to Miami, called the Sunniland Trend. But the results of the water testing aren't reassuring residents of a Naples neighborhood who are anxious about a recent decision by a judge and a looming decision by DEP that could bring another oil well into their backyards.

To Drill Or Not To Drill In Golden Gate Estates

The proposed oil exploration well in the Naples community of Golden Gate Estates isn’t literally in Pam and Jamie Duran’s backyard—but it’s close enough.

"We found out the property values around here will drop 30 percent. That’s an automatic deduction," Pam says.

Down the dirt road that runs in front of the Duran’s five-acre property is a wide open field with a yellow and black sign marked "No Trespassing"  nailed to a tree. It’s here where a herd of cows stroll into view.

Pam is an artist and Jamie a retired engineer. They invested in a house in Golden Gate estates where a dollar goes a lot further than it would in the main city of Naples. But now the Dan A. Hughes Company, the same Texas-based outfit that ran afoul of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at another well site close by—is set to drill another exploratory well.

“The Dan A. Hughes company has been in business for 50 years and this is the first time they’ve had this kind of controversy come up around one of its operations," says Dan A. Hughes Company spokesman David Blackmon.

The company which has permits to explore for oil in the area, including the Golden Gate Estates property.  

 “I think the industry has seen the growing movement of opposition against oil and gas development, hydraulic fracking specifically, and has been slow to understand it has to improve the way it communicates," he says.

The company uses a process similar to fracking, and fracking is legal in Florida, although it has never happened in the state before, and there isn't a regulatory process in place for it.

Golden Gate estates residents worry about about increased traffic and noise and  stemming from the site. They’re also concerned about how to get out of the area in case something goes wrong. There’s only one way in and out of the estates. Another major concern:  how the drilling operation will impact Florida panthers—which roam about the estates.

Residents, Environmentalists Worry About Panthers

“A lot of the stuff we’re hearing from the opposition is, ’you can’t go there, don’t go near the panther habitat.’ But the reality is these programs have existed down there for decades," says Collier Resources Vice President of Land Management Christian Spilker. Collier Resources is leasing the land to the Dan A. Hughes Company.

He says the program and panthers have coexisted for decades.

“We have panthers denning adjacent to our oil pads, we have collared panthers moving across our pads, and the U.S. Fish and wildlife—they looked at it and stated publicly they think our oil activity and panthers are compatible.”

At least one area environmental group is in agreement. 

Nancy Payton with the Florida Wildlife Federation, says she agrees with the oil company.  She’s stayed out of the fray, but says she’s discussed the issue with panther biologists, the Florida Wildlife Commission and even officials with the nearby panther preserve—and says there’s no reason to believe the animal is at risk since it’s not an ideal habitat. She also argues it’s disingenuous for people living in the Estates to not looking at how the development affects panthers.  

 “If they’re concerned about the loss of panther habitat, transportation issues, fragmentation and isolation of habitat, they need to be looking at Golden Gate Estates, where nine sections of prime panther habitat is being whittled away by one, two and five acre home sites, she says.

Drilling To Continue

An administrative law judge recently ruled the Golden Gate Estates well project could move forward. the final decision on the project now rests with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Dan A. Hughes company says the operation will be small scale, but there could be a petroleum smell and probably some noise from traffic and from the site.  He expects the operation to last about six weeks. Even though the well will be more than 1200 feet away from the Duran’s doorstep- further than state regulations call for—it doesn’t give them any comfort. And Pam Duran says if the oil rig is built, she and her husband may be leaving.