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Florida Citizens Seek Drilling Industry Transparency

By Maria Rose, Communications Intern, FracTracker Alliance

Pamela Duran waited impatiently in front of a Hampton Inn in Naples, Florida on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, with her husband Jaime, and several of their community members.  They had to wait several days for a press conference with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regarding natural gas drilling in their home town of Collier County.  The original meeting had been postponed and rescheduled from the day before.

Seeking Transparency

Pamela, Jaime, and community members intended to ask the DEP, headed by Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard, about future gas drilling plans in Collier County.  However, when the Durans and other community members asked to speak with the DEP at the Hampton Inn, they were asked to leave.  In an attempt to seek answers to their questions, they then invited the DEP to meet with them outside the Hampton Inn.  The DEP refused, and instead held a closed meeting 20 miles away in Rookery Bay.  Only a select few members of the press were allowed to attend, forcing the Durans and the rest of the concerned community members to return home without answers to any of their questions.  Jamie said:

We were told to move out to the curb—kind of literally being kicked to the curb—and weren’t able to meet with the DEP… There hasn’t been an exchange of ideas;  there’s no back and forth.  They only had a few people from the media which is not a press conference.  The DEP said they’re committed to transparency, but it seems more like they’re committed to invisibility. We get nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Adding Confusion to the Mix

Drilling in Florida. Photo: WeArePowerShift.org

The frustration over transparency and communication with the DEP and Collier County’s Board of Commissioners stemmed from the lack of information and confusion surrounding the recent surge of nearby drilling activity.  Natural gas drilling in Florida has occurred on and offshore since the 1940s, but concerns related to the more intense impacts of  unconventional oil and gas drilling and its associated activities  have only recently surfaced.  Currently, drilling issues are contained to southwest Florida, where seismic testing is being conducted around the Collier and Hendry counties, and outside of Naples.  These areas overlay the Sunniland basin. The fossil fuel rich layer of shale found here makes companies like Dan A. Hughes eager to invest in the area.

In April of 2013, the Durans received a letter from a company called Total Safety.  Total Safety was conducting a contingency plan for the drilling company, Dan A. Hughes.  The letter contained limited information.  The Durans were only told that they were in an evacuation zone and had to provide information to Total Safety for safety precautions.  According to Pamela notes, “We were one of the first homes to get a letter… They didn’t even tell us then, that Dan A. Hughes was a drilling company.  We didn’t know what kind of evacuation zone it even was. We thought it was hurricanes at first. The commissioners didn’t even know.”

Pamela was so surprised that she called the police, and discovered that they were unable to provide sufficient information. It wasn’t until speaking with Jennifer Jones, a representative from Total Safety, that she learned that her family and 45 others were within a one mile-radius evacuation zone around a planned well pad.  The risks of hydrogen sulfide leaks, fires, and explosions, among other things, made it necessary to have an evacuation plan for these families.  At this point, Dan A. Hughes had not yet applied for a drilling permit, but would most likely be drilling by October of 2013.  Pamela noted that,  “This was the first time we’d heard of any drilling. And I was totally overwhelmed by the problems we thought might occur.”   If approved, Dan A. Hughes would be drilling within 1,000 feet from the Durans’ home.

The Durans and several of the neighbors who received similar letters met with the Colliers in late May of 2013 . The Colliers were a family that owned the surrounding land for several generations, including the mineral rights.  The concerned residents expected to have an open dialogue and had two requests:

  1. They wanted the well to be moved so that none of the neighborhood residents would be in an evacuation zone, and
  2. They wanted the drilling company to use farm roads instead of the residential roads to avoid traffic and noise.

The Colliers denied their request, but attention had been brought to the issue, and citizens began to resist drilling in the area.  Pamela commented, “The disregard for human life out here is atrocious. This has become such a big issue because we the citizens decided we’re not just going to sit and take it.”

As the drilling became more and more prominent in the area, the Durans noticed a change in the atmosphere around the neighborhood. Pamela reports that some intimidating activities have occurred, such as workers in Dan A. Hughes’ trucks video-taping certain houses, or cars parked outside of houses for excessive amounts of time.  All of this behavior is new for the area.  Pamela asks, “There are people here in the neighborhood with cars parked in the front or side of their property, and after they call the police, they find out it’s a private investigator. Who hires private investigators?”

Cease and Desist?

The biggest issue arose at the end of 2013. On December 30, 2013, the Dan A. Hughes company began to use acid fracturing to stimulate the Collier Hogan well. In Florida, there is no special permission required to begin fracking.  However, the company had assured a very concerned public and the county commissioners that there would be no fracking.   As a result of this violation, the DEP issued a cease and desist order on January 1 of 2014.   Dan A. Hughes, however, continued to frack until the process was finished.  It wasn’t until April 8, 2014 that the DEP issued a consent order to Dan A. Hughes along with a fine of $25,000 for unauthorized fracking.  All of these details were not released to the public until the consent order was issued in April.  Dr. Karen Dwyer, a resident of Collier County, notes that there have been many opportunities since January to share such information; between January and April.  There was an EPA hearing, a Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee meeting, various Collier county commissioner meetings, and several Administrative Judge hearings where the information could have been released to the public.  According to Dr. Dwyer:

The DEP just sat on this information while everyone else was looking closely at other aspects of the Dan A. Hughes drilling.  We’ve had all these meetings looking at how reliable they are and what their training has been, but the DEP never said that Dan A. Hughes had been under this investigation.  That was wrong of the DEP.  Decisions were being made to allow [drilling] while this serious issue was going on, and we didn’t know.

Triggering Resistance

Since then, Collier County’s resistance to gas drilling has taken off.  On April 22nd, the county commissioners voted unanimously to challenge the DEP’s consent order for Dan A. Hughes to drill, which is the first challenge of gas drilling in the area.  Senator Bill Nelson called for a federal review of Dan A. Hughes on May 1st.  The next day, the state called for Dan A. Hughes to cease all of their new operations in Florida.  Two weeks later on May 13th, the county commissioners voted to challenge the Collier-Hogan well, targeting a much more specific project. The commissioners began the legal process of challenging Dan A. Hughes’ consent order on June 10th, insisting on public meetings.

Even though they have seen progress, citizens like Dwyer and the Durans do not feel that change is happening rapidly enough. For example, the state has ordered all of Dan A. Hughes’ new operations stopped, but there are still old wells that can keep producing since their inception occurred prior to this new order. Also, once the commissioners filed their challenge on Dan A. Hughes, they were unable to talk about it publicly. Because of this development, issues surrounding a lack of transparency and communication have resurfaced.

Environmental and Social Justice Concerns

At times, Pamela said she feels like the combination of the Collier County’s geography and demographics have made it an easy target for resource extraction companies.  She describes the area as a multicultural town with many immigrants—Jamaican, Mexican, Hatian, Peruvian, Columbian, and more—and a community comprised of older retirees and very young families building up savings.  These demographics, she feels, may give off the impression that the residents will not come together and fight for their rights.  Speaking to the comments directed at Colliers from the more populous Naples community, Pamela responded by saying, “This is the first time I’ve felt people think we’re poor.  It’s not like we’re an urban location with super poor people surviving on welfare, but yes, lots of people here are foreign, and we don’t have much material wealth.”

According to the Durans, the surge of gas drilling activity in Collier County has drastically altered the day-to-day lifestyle of many of its residents.  Pamela and Jaime have dedicated much of their time to fighting the companies and following discussions surrounding the issue, which takes up a significant amount of their time. Pamela notes:

For the past 14 months, our lives have been on hold, dedicating the past months to stopping drilling.  We wanted to do certain things to our house, but we’ve put it on hold.   Why invest in a home if we might have to leave it for health reasons later? I’m not going to stay and watch us get sick.

Dwyer has similar feelings on the issue.  He is concerned about the human rights aspect of the problem, such as equal access to clean water and air, as well as the difficulty of communicating with large corporations.  Dwyer would like to see the state and federal government buy the mineral rights from Collier Resources and set that land aside as a reserve, which is what it was prior to drilling. Feeling that the drilling will most likely be permitted, Dwyer believes that companies should concentrate on improving procedures and communication.

Dwyer recognizes that even though resisting the industry has proved to be frustrating, she now knows about the issues surrounding gas and is determined to continue informing as many people as possible and is continuing an open dialogue with the county commissioners.  She feels that progress towards stopping gas companies can be made when more people know about the problems that are occurring.

Learn more about the unique aspects of drilling in Florida.

The interviews that served as the basis for this article were conducted in the summer 2014. This article is an update to an article we wrote in 2013. Read more.