Everglades oil drilling plans raise contamination concerns

As the oil industry eyes Florida wetlands, are residents’ environmental fears justified?

Pamela and Jaime Duran speak tell Adam May about concerns that oil drilling could contaminate their drinking water.
America Tonight

NAPLES, Fla. — For their retirement, Pamela and Jaime Duran chose a cottage in southwestern Florida. Here, they could raise chickens, savor the quiet and enjoy the lush backdrop of the historic Everglades. They call it "a little piece of paradise."

"There are no noises out here," said Jaime Duran. "You don't hear anything at night. You hear crickets, and that's about as loud as it gets at night."

But the oil industry has set its sights on this swath of the state, with a proposed drill site just 1,000 feet from the Durans' house. That would mean noise, dust and dozens of trucks passing each day. But the Durans are most concerned about their drinking water, which they fear could be poisoned by toxic waste from the well.

Many environmental groups say they have reason to be worried given Florida’s unique geology. As part of the drilling process, millions of gallons of wastewater laced with chemicals would be injected back into the ground.

“In this case, they’re injecting into an area called the boulder zone,” said Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the region’s biggest environmental group. “Those boulders have a lot of holes in them in Florida. We’re sitting on top of very porous limestone.”

Hecker also worries about the impact on the endangered Florida panther. One of the proposed wells would be less than a mile from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last sanctuaries for these big cats. More traffic in the area could mean more panthers killed by cars and trucks.

It’s already happening

Residents of Southwest Florida protest plans to drill for oil near the Everglades.

What a lot of people don't know — not even in Florida — is that there's already oil drilling in the greater Everglades.

About 25 miles from the proposed wells, around seven or eight wells pump day and night in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve, a wetlands that is part of the greater Everglades ecosystem. The area isn't open to the public, but the National Park Service gave America Tonight a special tour.

"I think they've done a good job over the years," said Don Hargrove, who oversees oil and gas operations here. "Any impact on the surface, any pad that has been constructed, you can consider this as an impact. However, they are used temporarily, they're not forever. They're removed and restored at some point."

America Tonight visited an area of Big Cypress National Preserve, which was the site of oil drilling less than 40 years ago. All the equipment had been removed, and the site turned back to nature — proof to some that oil drilling can be done in an environmentally responsible manner.

Asked whether the ecosystem could handle dozens of more operations, Hargrove responded: "It depends on the operator and how responsible they are. It really does."

There's no telling if the company drilling the new wells would be equally responsible, and there have been reports of leaks at some injection sites across the country. But here, the park service regularly tests the water and said it's never seen any evidence of contamination. At worst, Hargrove said these wells are a short-term eyesore. 

Why is it allowed?

Some of the proposed oil wells are near a refuge for the endangered Florida panther.

It may seem curious that drilling is even allowed on national park land at all, especially in such a sensitive ecosystem, home to the Florida panther, one of America's most endangered species.

It's because the rights to the oil under much of Big Cypress, and to some 800,000 acres of southwest Florida, belong to the descendants of Barron Collier, once the largest landowner in the state. The Collier Companies are behind the new plans to drill.

America Tonight left several messages for the Collier Companies, but they didn't respond. So we came to their headquarters in Naples and tracked down a spokeswoman, who said they had no comment.

However, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection did comment, assuring us that the wells meet its requirements "designed to protect freshwater aquifers." As for the panthers, it said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the panther refuge, didn't have any objections to the proposed drilling.

But the Durans aren't buying it, pointing out that other states that have allowed drilling in sensitive areas have later suffered polluted water.

"This is a special place," Pamela Duran said. "Would they let oil drilling at the Grand Canyon? Where do we stop, you know? Is there anything sacred?"

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