"Karen Dwyer on Florida's Environmental Threats" Transcript

Welcome to The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast, Episode Ten, for July 28th, 2014. I'm Mike Eidson. This show delivers news and updates via interviews with activists around the state on the issues that you, the people of Florida, care about.

This time, it’s fracking and other environmental threats in Collier County and its surrounding areas. As usual, stick around for the end of the podcast to hear a list of actions, groups, and resources discussed on the show that can help you effect positive change.

My guest today is Dr. Karen Dwyer. She holds three degrees from the University of Notre Dame and is a retired teacher by profession and an activist by conscience.  She has lived in Florida over 50 years and has been closely involved in the Fair Food Program, immigration reform, human rights work, the anti-nuclear movement, war resistance, and climate justice. Her group, the Stonecrab Alliance, was formed in the 1970s when it helped stop a nuclear power plant from being built in Bonita Springs.  Currently the group is working to stop the expansion of new oil drilling and fracking in Naples, Florida and the Everglades.

Karen, thank you so much for joining me today.

Thank you for inviting me.

First of all, congratulations to you and Stone Crab Alliance and the other groups responsible, congratulations for being able to prevent the environmental threats down there in Naples and the surrounding areas.

Yes, it’s a wonderful victory, and we’re still celebrating.

That’s fantastic. For any listeners that are unaware of these recent methods, acid fracking and regular fracking, with hydrofracturing, can you discuss -- and I think there was regular oil drilling down there as well, maybe you could explain that -- but can you discuss what some of the environmental threats locally were, for you, that are going to no longer go forward?

Right. Well, threats included the possibility of fracking and the contamination of the water supply and surrounding wetlands, as well as noise, traffic, industrial infrastructure, safety and health concerns, environmental degradation, and habitat fragmentation.

To be more specific, major threats included the freshwater contamination of our watersheds (because that’s where the drilling was happening), aquifers, adjacent wetlands, and our city water supplies. Essentially, it would have undermined Everglades restoration as well, because it was occurring in these areas. Oil and toxic brine spills were a great concern. Surfacing of toxic chemicals in improperly plugged wells from the 1940s, increased fire risk, encroachment on Florida panther habitat, the heavy traffic danger, literally placing 30 families in an emergency evacuation zone, as well as the excessive dust, the diesel fumes, the airborne drilling contaminants, the noise, nighttime lights, heavy trucks hauling in 15,000 feet of pipe, 145-foot oil derricks, limerock pads, and other hazardous infrastructure associated with large-scale industrial drilling operations. None of this is environmentally friendly.

The oil industry is drilling in the very worst places. They’re drilling in our vital watersheds and headwaters, in the greater Everglades ecosystem. We’re talking the Fakahatchee Strand, the Picayune, the Corkscrew, the Big Cypress Preserve. This is not vacant land and it is certainly not industrial land. This is land in the heart of the Everglades, in the midst of the massive 30-year Everglades restoration project, a joint federal and state effort, that will protect some 2.4 million acres of interconnected wetlands. It doesn’t get any bigger. These areas are a critical habitat for more than 60 threatened and endangered species, such as the indigo snake, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the gopher turtle, the burrowing owl, the woodstork, and the Florida panther.

These areas are also vital watersheds that replenish levels in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades, and fill the aquifers millions rely on for drinking water. Even a minor spill here would be catastrophic. It is irresponsible to risk contaminating important wetlands and our freshwater. They are far more valuable than oil.

And you mentioned fracking. That was another major concern for us, because the state tells us that once the drilling permit is issued, industry is free to extract oil any way they like. They can acidize or acid frack or hydraulically frack anytime, and they don’t have to tell us. They don’t even have to submit a new permit application, because extreme extraction is a workover procedure in Florida.

So imagine our alarm when we found out that the oil industry could use trade-secret chemicals, in unknown concentrations, and that one well could use 11,000 gallons of chemicals, everything from benzine, a known carcinogen, to hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive that eats bone, steel, and rock. The oil industry may also inject wastewater that contains heavy metals and radioactive materials that no amount of regulation can ever make safe. It’s legal because of a loophole redefined all material from oil and gas drilling as non hazardous, no matter how dangerous it is.

It’s precisely because these contaminants are so toxic that they have to be injected over 2,000 feet into the boulder zone, which is not containing them as securely as industry claims. EPA records -- because we had an EPA meeting when we researched all this -- showed that the boulder zone lacks a competent confining zone, especially in Florida’s highly fractured limestone geology, and that injected fluids migrate and surface, especially in Florida’s hundreds of improperly plugged wells from the 1940s.

EPA records also show that injected wells repeatedly fail, sending toxic chemicals either gurgling to the surface or seeping into our aquifers that store drinking water. In scores of cases where injected wells had polluted aquifers, most could not be reclaimed, because fixing the damage was too costly or technically infeasible, meaning you can’t clean up an aquifer.  

And finally, one well is permitted to destroy 5 million gallons of water per month, and unlike agricultural water, the drilling water can never be reused. It is permanently polluted. And given the worldwide water scarcity and the annual water restrictions in South Florida, it is criminal to permit the oil and gas industries to destroy so much fresh water.

Imagine the thousands of wells on the 350,000 acres Collier Resources just leased for seismic testing and even more if Collier leases all of its 800,000 acres of mineral rights. Just as the pumping of aquifers in Florida has dried up springs, so too the oil industry’s pumping of our aquifer threatens to dry up nearby wells and wetlands. If we add in climate change and sea-level rise, the case is closed. We need to shut the floodgate on new Everglades oil drilling.

So that’s a huge list of challenges that you just laid out. My first question, when I was listening to you talk about all these different issues: Is this the worst you’ve ever seen it? You said that you’ve been working since the 1970s at least with the Stonecrab Alliance that you formed. If you had to compare every era of Florida environmental history, is the worst it’s ever been?

I think we’ve had far more water problems that we’ve ever had, but also, Florida is really in the midst of an oil boom, with companies gearing up to tap a goldmine in the Everglades. So as far as oil drilling is concerned, this is the worst, because what we’re seeing is industry coming back in for a second or third time to drill now with these new techniques: extreme extraction, it could be acid fracking, it could be hydraulic fracturing, it could be any number of things that they’re using, because it’s perfectly unregulated in Florida. The regulations have not kept pace with the new technology. So I would say that the threat is far greater now, especially because one of the problems we had in Collier County was, a well was illegally fracked, the Collier Hogan well that’s right next to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The company, Dan A. Hughes, was fined $25,000 for that illegal fracking. So not only can it happen, it did happen. And it highlighted how important it is to get the regulations in place and to really just shut down all new oil drilling in the Everglades, because this area is far too valuable, and our water in Florida is at risk. We’re told that if anything shuts down growth in Florida, it will be the lack of water.

Why do you think the Hughes company did that? They got that $25,000 fine. Is that like a drop in the bucket to them, did they just not care, or did they feel like….

Right. Yeah, it’s a drop in the bucket, exactly. What happened was they were drilling next to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Collier-Hogan well. This was a well that had really flown underneath everyone’s radar. We didn’t even know it was out there. Then on New Year’s Eve, they illegally fracked it, the DEP [The Florida Department of Environmental Protection] really withheld information until April. That’s the first time the public and all the other regulatory agencies found out about it, like the EPA [The Environmental Protection Agency] and the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee and all those things. I think they did it because they came up with a dry well, and they wanted to stimulate it to produce that oil because they spent over $50 million on that well, so they decided, “Why not?” It’s legal, we can do it.

The problem was, to tell you exactly what they did wrong, it was procedural. The violation was grave but the fracking-like incident wasn’t a mistake or an oversight, but intentional. The DEP told Hughes not to do a procedure that had never been done before in Florida. They ignored the state and went ahead with what sounds like acid fracking, and when ordered to cease and desist, Hughes continued in direct defiance. So what they did was disregard the rules and engage in unlawful and untested acid fracking in our vital watershed. Either hoping they wouldn’t get caught on the one hand or, as you said, quite willing to pay the small fee on the other.

Worse yet, we now know that DEP was on-site at the time of the illegal fracking to observe but not stop the violation, because the inspector did not have enforcement powers. Well, we find it beyond belief that DEP photographed the cancer-causing chemicals but failed to stop the violation, failed to notify the county, and failed to test the water.

How much is the Department of Environmental Protection an ally and how much are they an opponent, when it comes to these things? Or are they perpetuating the problem? To be more specific I’m talking about the Rick Scott administration and all this.

Well, like I said, they’ve suppressed information for over… it depends on where you put the timeline, but they’ve suppressed information from January through April. And you have to understand, that’s during the time when we were having all these key hearings, by the DEP, by the EPA, who had flown down for a special hearing on the injection well. And we also had hearings by the Collier County Commissioners as well as the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee, that had reconvened for the first time in decades to rule about whether or not to permit this drilling site. And everyone was asking, “Well, can you tell us about Hughes Oil, DEP?” “How credible are they?” “Are they using safety procedures?” Y’know, “Can you tell us anything?” And they kept silent about their illegal fracking and their violation.

So, a lot of people, including the Collier County commissioners, were angry that DEP had kept silent and hadn’t notified them, because the county did have enforcement powers.


And so, I would say that the DEP has really let down the community. They've lost our trust, because, really, for six long months, there were no water tests, there was no accounting for the flowback with all those chemicals, nothing had been done! They hadn’t enforced that consent order with Dan A. Hughes. So they've been negligent in their duties, as far as we’re concerned. It’s not only that the company was guilty of criminal wrongdoing, they've been negligent, and the question remains, why now, after seven months, have they finally called for the revoking of all of Dan A. Hughes’ permits? Is that what it’s going to take, seven long months of possible contamination of our water?

Right. Even though it took them a very long time to make a decision, it was still a victory, and wasn’t there one additional victory, just last week or the week before? What was that, exactly?

First, Dan A. Hughes had announced that they were abandoning all plans to explore for oil in Southwest Florida. In a surprise move, the Texas oil company terminated its 15,000-acre oil exploration lease and relinquished its permits, including the Golden Gate permit that placed over 30 families in an emergency evacuation zone. So this was a milestone victory.

Shortly thereafter, the DEP shut down Dan A. Hughes permanently in Florida by revoking all of the company’s remaining permits and filing a lawsuit for remediation and cleanup at the Collier Hogan drill site. So this really means that 115,000 acres in the heart of the Everglades, only a thousand feet from homes, have been saved from irresponsible drilling and fracking.

And so it is a big victory. And it doesn’t happen often. And so, it’s just amazing.

One thing I want to put out there is that there are activists listening to this show, and sometimes they aren’t really as strategic or as careful about how to see your opponent and to have a victory like this. How exactly did you and the other activists do this? How did you do it?

Right. I could sort of turn back the clock and give you a quick account of what happened, because in one word it would be (relentless) perseverance. We just kept on. We were at every single meeting. We were at every single event. But just to wind back the clock, and to give it all in a chronological timeline:

Last May, Dan A. Hughes from Texas applied for permits to drill for oil only a thousand feet from homes. It was part of a huge project to drill 115,000 acres in the Everglades. Now we first learned about the proposed drill site when residents received a letter asking them for contact information so they could be evacuated in the case of an explosion, gas leak, or other drilling disaster. Alarmed, hundreds of people packed an informational meeting, expressing fear and outrage about the proposed drilling.

And right away, we learned two things: first, we were up against Florida’s strong laws protecting the oil and gas industry, and second, there was no time to waste. We met with everyone, from Collier Resources, to legislators, to The United States Environmental Protection Agency, as well as organized a non-stop series of public actions, from town hall meetings, to street-corner pickets, to candlelight vigils, to a march by land and by sea on Governor Scott’s beachfront home, to a house party for Senator Dwight Bullard, who sent an official letter requesting DEP deny the permit. We promoted letter-writing campaigns that overwhelmed the DEP in 600 public comments and we buried the EPA in 125,000 comments. As a result, both agencies traveled to Naples to meet with the public. The EPA hearing was filled, with fire marshals closing the doors and overflow spilling into the street. It was a heated four-hour hearing. And when the state issued the Golden Gate permit, three petitions challenged it. And when the Big Cypress Advisory Committee reconvened for the first time in decades, the expert panel recommended denying the permit, since they could not guarantee the safety of our water.  
And that kind of brings us up to the breaking news about Dan A. Hughes being fined $25,000 for unlawfully fracking the well next to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. For those that don’t know, that’s a 5,000-year-old forest with the last remaining Old Growth Cypress in the world. The violation, as we’ve said already, was grave, it was intentional, and we really couldn’t believe that a Texas oil company could disregard the rules and engage in unlawful and untested acid fracking in our vital watershed. Like I said before, either hoping that they wouldn’t be caught, or willing to pay the small fee on the other [hand].

Worse yet, the DEP, we know, was on site at the time of the illegal fracking to observe, but not stop the violation, because the inspector did not have enforcement powers. And we found it beyond belief that the DEP photographed the cancer-causing chemicals but failed to stop the violation, failed to notify the county, and failed to test the water. So, armed with this documented evidence of the oil company’s criminal wrongdoing, and the DEP’s negligence, we filled the Collier County Commissioners’ meeting, and we argued that Hughes’ permit should be revoked, because no amount of regulation will make drilling safe, if the company won’t obey the rules. The commissioners agreed; like us, they were angry and alarmed that Hughes lied about their intentions to frack, and that the DEP kept secret the company’s criminal wrongdoing for months, during all the key federal and state hearings.  

The good news is, that for the first time ever, the county planned to challenge the state on oil drilling. The commissioners voted unanimously to petition the state to revoke the permit and to implement stronger protections. Echoing the commissioners’ concerns, United States Senator Bill Nelson ordered a federal investigation of Dan A. Hughes. He wrote, quote, “We cannot tolerate expanded industrial drilling activities that pose a threat to the drinking and surface water so close to the Florida Everglades, one of the world’s great environmental treasures.” Soon after the senator’s rebuke, the state suspended “all new drilling operations in Florida by Dan A. Hughes.”

Meanwhile, the DEP was pressuring the commissioners to accept private settlement rather than pursue a public lawsuit. So we repeatedly returned to the boardroom, calling for the commissioners to submit the challenge, stay the course, include stronger enforcement terms, and to file an amended petition. All of which they did. And the commissioners’ lawsuit woke the DEP from their complacency. After six months of suppressing information, the DEP broke silence and issued a flood of memos, press releases, and letters. Secretary [Herschel] Vinyard came to town and we got a place at the table with Senator Bill Nelson.

At the same time, Dan A. Hughes was encountering increasing opposition. Beset by state-levied penalties, a federal EPA investigation, a Section 7 from Fish and Wildlife Services, a lawsuit from the commissioners, with the Conservancy signing on as interveners, non-stop protests from residents and activists, and close scrutiny from local and national media, like Reuters, Associated Press, Truthout, Newsweek, Russian Times, Al Jazeera, NPR, Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Fox 4, NBC 2, as well as The Naples Daily News and News Press, and a host of others, Dan A. Hughes announced it was ending all oil exploration in Southwest Florida. In a mutual agreement, Hughes and Collier Resources terminated their 115,000-acre oil exploration lease. And shortly thereafter, the DEP revoked all of Hughes’ remaining permits and filed a lawsuit for remediation.

And although we’re still celebrating the shutdown of Dan A. Hughes, we’re now more aware than ever of how much remains to be done, especially because, just yesterday [editor’s note: this was recorded July 25, so July 24], we got the news that Hughes is considering challenging the revocation of the Hogan permit, just that one single permit.

That sort of brings us up to date on the activity. You can see, there were a lot of groups, there was nonstop action everywhere, in the courts, on the streets, at the meetings. It was everyone doing something that really turned everything around. I think it was public action that compelled the agencies, like the DEP and the EPA, to come down, and meet with us, and speak about this, and get it on everyone’s radar.

So, I would say it’s really important for people to get out in the street and vote with their feet, as they used to say. But, really, make the issue visible by not only signing the petitions and everything we can do at home, but also publicly making it very visible by including the press and by making public events that highlight the problem.

Okay, great. There is so much work that goes into it, so that was really wonderful to hear.

What kind of challenges are still left in the area and what other environmental issues facing Florida are you concerned about?

Well, in terms of the oil drilling, we still have 350,000 acres leased for seismic testing in The Big Cypress National Preserve as well as right next to it. So, that’s really… we’ve been sending in comments and waiting for the public meetings and that sort of thing, so that’s something we all need to look at and stay attuned to.

We also need to get some legislation in place. We found out that there are… we need to have a ban on fracking and extreme extraction both locally and at the state level so that this can’t happen again, what happened at the Collier Hogan Well. And we also need regulations locally for a buffer zone. We need a buffer zone of one mile from family home to drill site, so that no one is placed into an emergency evacuation zone. You know, simple things like that.

We’re also encouraging everyone to join us; we’re going to have a march on the governor’s house, by land and by sea, October 18th, in Naples, and we want everyone to bring their troubled water and their voices to the governor’s house, because last year it was just about shutting down the oil drilling, and this year it’s still about shutting down the oil drilling and fracking, but it’s also all about all the other water issues we have in this state, a vast array of them with the Lake Okeechobee overflow, and the springs and the fertilizing that’s causing the green slime, and all that sort of thing.

So, anyhow, we’re just inviting everyone to join us for that event, and also to sign up for updates from The Stonecrab Alliance and the Conservancy and other groups that are working on this issue, because we really need to everyone to just get educated to speak out against the oil drilling, and help us that way, just raising the awareness, because a lot of people still don’t know that there’s oil drilling in Florida. And so we need to overcome that resistance of people not knowing.

What was the other group called? Other than Stonecrab Alliance, obviously, it was something-Conservancy?

Right. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida. And there are other groups that have joined us as well. [editor's note: Sierra Club, Greenpeace Lakeland, Clean Water Initiative, Food and Water Watch, Environment Florida, ReThink Energy Florida and others.] Others have filed petitions and various things like that. But you can find the updates there.

Okay. Well, Dr. Karen Dwyer, thank you for your time today, thank you for all you do on behalf of Florida.

Well, thank you very much.


That was a very informative interview. I hope other activists will use the Stonecrab Alliance's methods for their causes. They got a lot done, and there's still a lot more to be done, and I congratulate them on what they and the other environmental groups have accomplished so far.

A lot of those environmental groups are linked to at the end of the transcript of this podcast, so check that out at FloridaProgressives.Com.

I also linked to some terminology and places mentioned in the interview that you may be unfamiliar with, in case you want more background on these things. Those links are throughout the transcript.

And now a special event coming up, that Karen mentioned in the interview:

15937 Delasol Lane • Naples, FL • 239.404.2171 
• dwyerka@gmail.com • Stonecrab Alliance @ Facebook

Bring your troubled water!

From Naples Pier to Governor’s Beachfront Home
Meet on the beach at Naples Pier (12th Ave. S., Naples, FL 34102)
March to Governor’s Home, Gulf of Mexico beachfront (3150 Gordon Drive)

Do you live near an oil well or fracking site or pipeline? Did BP oil wash up on your favorite 
beach or marsh? Is the Lake Okeechobee overflow mucking up your livelihood — turning the 
rivers toxic and the Indian River Lagoon into a dead-zone? Got green slime clogging your 
springs? Are agriculture and industry polluting your waters and threatening your tribal lands 
in the Everglades? Are you working to protect your community’s waters? Are you struggling 
to restore the Everglades?

Then plan to join us and bring your troubled water to the Governor’s Home in Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, Saturday, October 18, at 4:00 PM. Please label your water with date and location. 

“Save Our Water and Everglades” is designed to bring attention to a broad range of threats 
to clean water faced by communities throughout Florida. Last year, the march was organized 
to oppose the expansion of new Everglades oil drilling only 1000 feet from family homes. This 
year the march is organized to save Florida’s waters and Everglades from new drilling and 
fracking — as well as other problems.

By land and by sea, we’ll march and paddle from the Naples Pier to the Governor’s beachfront 
mansion. Banners, signs, and flags will spell out our concerns. In the Governor’s beachfront 
backyard we’ll set up an oil derrick, deliver our troubled waters, listen to speakers, enjoy 
music, and participate in a water blessing from the Miccosukee Otter Clan. Closing with a
candlelight vigil and wish lanterns, we’ll invite everyone, from legislators to land barons, to 
partner with us in saving Florida’s water and Everglades. 

Info on Facebook at Stonecrab Alliance or dwyerka@gmail.com


You can find me on Facebook at the FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast. You can find me on Twitter at mike eidson, spelled e i d s o n. This is the first podcast out of five, in five days. If you want to promote the podcast on social media, you can use the hashtag #5interviews5days . 

This music is by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com . It is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/            

Thanks for listening.

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