Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee Votes to Deny DEP Oil Drilling Permit

After several hours of deliberation yesterday, the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee voted 4:1 to recommend denial of the Department of Environmental Protection Agency's (DEP) permit to allow an exploratory oil well in Golden Gate Estates.

The committee convened the meeting in Naples, Florida after an administrative challenge was filed in response to the DEP issuing intent of approval of the permit. They are an extension of the DEP, which ensures compliance of permits within the Big Cypress region.

The decision to recommend denial came as a surprise to those in attendance, as the meeting began with a 4:1 vote to recommend approval of the permit. But as numerous residents and environmental representatives finally had the chance to speak, the committee had a change of heart.

Issued raised by the committee included the need for a cumulative effects analysis on the environment (the Dan A Hughes Company has been granted a lease of 115,000 acres for drilling), accident preparedness, concerns with traffic, and increasing the bond the oil company is required to post.

The Sierra Club's concerns with the well include impacts to Florida panthers ranging from incidental take of the species, a lack of peer-reviewed science to back up official's statements, increased traffic, the destruction of panther primary habitat, and the cumulative impacts from oil drilling.

There have been no studies conducted analyzing the impacts to wildlife behavior and life history from oil drilling. Increased traffic in an area where panthers are found increases the likelihood that panthers could be hit by cars – the number one killer of the species. Behavioral studies on panthers are few and far between, so making statements that drilling will not impact behavioral patterns has not been verified.
Saying that "panthers and oil wells can coexist" is unacceptable without peer-reviewed studies to support the claim.

Telemetry data clearly identifies a tremendous amount of panther activity in the area, including telemetry points on top of the proposed well site. Previous statements by the Dan A Hughes Company, that no panthers have been found on the property is a blatant lie.

Given the knowledge of cumulative impacts, increased traffic, and destruction of primary panther habitat, a "take" (harm, harass, kill, etc.) for the species will be hard to avoid. No reasonable and prudent measures, the actions believed necessary and appropriate to minimize impacts, and mandated by the Endangered Species Act, have been proposed. This permit cannot be approved without the proper scientific review of a biological opinion under the ESA.

A video of Sierra's statements can be found here.

Jon Arthur, a geologist with the DEP and chairman of the committee, stated of the committee's decision, "I get a feeling that approving this permit is pulling our finger out of the dike."

The public sway on the committee's vote shows just how powerful a concerned group of citizens can be. Without our voices being heard, this victory would never have taken place. Inspiring work by all the groups and citizens involved!

The Committee first met on March 11th, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) public hearing at the Golden Gate Civic Association. After a public outcry for the EPA to hold a hearing in Naples, more than 300 activists came out to have their voices heard. Issues ranged from public safety and watershed impacts to concerns for increased traffic and panther habitat destruction.

The EPA made the decision at that meeting to extend their public comment period to March 31st. And as of yesterday, the deadline for public comments to the EPA, the Sierra Club had gathered over 115,000 signatures in a petition against the oil well!

The EPA now will address all public comments submitted and return with a decision on whether or not to deny or approve the underground injection well permit. Given the amount of comments received, there is no time frame for their decision - it could be months.

These small victories could not have taken place without the numerous concerned citizens of Florida! Thank you to everyone involved!