Florida officials have ordered an oil-drilling company to halt its illegal fracking-like operations near the Everglades, raising the ire of area citizens already concerned about the harm of energy exploration to humans and the region’s delicate ecosystem.
Early this month, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Dan A. Hughes Company to stop all drilling in five exploratory wells in Collier County, near the western area of the Everglades, until further notice. In addition, US Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has called on federal officials to investigate.
One month prior to the order, the state had cited the Texas company for extra-legal operations, levying the maximum civil penalties under Florida law. The $25,000 fine was assessed for an "enhanced extraction procedure” similar to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, without a permit.
The state has also demanded independent reviews of the company’s fracking-like practices and the groundwater near the drilling sites, which could last until December, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The fracking process entails blasting fissures in rocks thousands of meters under the earth with water and sand to release trapped deposits of oil and gas. Injection wells used to dispose of highly-toxic fracking wastewater have contributed to heightened earthquake activity across the nation. The wastewater - riddled with hazardous and often undisclosed chemicals and contaminants - has been linked to a host of human and environmental health concerns.
The previously-unknown drilling in the fragile Everglades area has mobilized the local community, the Sentinel reported.
"This is our watershed," said Vickie Machado, of Florida’s Food & Water Watch, a public safety group. "They are using millions of gallons of clean water, mixing it with chemicals with known carcinogens, and pumping it underground to break up the protected rock formations out there. The potential is pretty scary."
The method employed by the Hughes Co. was initially questioned by state environmental-protection officials concerned about the procedure’s risks. The state told the company last year to refrain from advancing their drilling projects, but Hughes Co. went forward anyway.
Their method is considered “fracking-like” because the company injects dissolving acids into the ground to unearth oil reserves rather than the usual fracking chemicals. It also says it uses a “modest volume” of water and sand in the process.
Hughes Co. spokesman David Blackmon said the company is "confident the results are going to show that the groundwater hasn't been negatively impacted" and that its drilling projects will not contaminate any area drinking water.
"The way these wells are constructed, there are multiple layers — five layers of concrete and heavy steel — that prevent any of the fluids going through the well bore from contacting the groundwater formation," Blackmon said.
Opponents of drilling in the Everglades, long concerned that water contamination and damage to the Everglades is inevitable with such operations in the area, do not see this fracking-like process as so innocent.
"It doesn't reassure many people that they are pumping acid into the ground under high pressure to break up rock and draw out more oil," said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. "Those liquids could move around laterally, but also up and down and into the drinking water supply."
Energy companies have extracted small amounts of oil around the western Everglades since the 1940s. Yet new drilling techniques in recent years have lured new players into the region to tap into an estimated 702 million barrels of oil or natural gas in a strip of deposits within the Sunniland Trend, which spans from the state’s west coast to Broward and Miami-Dade counties in the east, according to the US Geological Survey.
The Hughes Co. is operating a few miles from the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a home for an array of plant and wildlife. The company is also drilling near the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge; it has asked the federal government for permission to store toxic wastewater from drilling near the site, a proposal strongly opposed by Naples residents and Everglades protectors.
Hughes Co. is drilling on private farm land in Collier County that was leased to several oil companies for energy exploration.
Experts say the risks inherent in drilling around the Everglades have alarmed larger companies afraid of possible fallout.
"I don't think there's enough oil there for the major companies to take the risk — the political risk, the image risk, the reputation risk — of drilling in the Everglades," said Jorge Pinon, an oil industry analyst at the University of Texas. "But you are going to see some of the independent companies taking that risk."