(Photo via Daniel Foster/ Creative Commons)

State officials under fire following fracking incident in Southwest Florida. (Photo via Daniel Foster/ Creative Commons)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

For a couple months now, residents and officials in Collier County have been up in arms about  recent revelations that a Texas-based oil company used an unauthorized fracking-like method to extract oil from a  well near Lake Trafford. Environmentalists and county officials have said the state’s environmental agency has not done enough to protect water resources in the area, prompting the Florida Department of Environmental Protection  (DEP) to step in. The results are mixed.

Just several weeks ago, Collier County’s Board of Commissioners were in a legal stand-off with DEP. Officials publicly traded barbs via press releases and public meetings.

The two groups were at odds over how DEP was handling news that the Dan A. Hughes Company used an unapproved method of drilling that had never been used before in Florida. The method involved highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals, which is very similar to a process of extracting natural gas called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The company had already riled residents in the area. Months before, the DEP had approved an oil exploration permit in Golden Gate Estates, also in Collier County. This well, unlike the Collier-Hogan well near Lake Trafford where the fracking-like incident occurred, was right next to homes.

In December, though, the company had run afoul of DEP. Dan A. Hughes had moved forward with a workover order that wasn’t approved. Once state officials got wind that Hughes was moving forward with their plans, the agency filed a cease and desist order. The company was ordered to pay a fine and hire an independent contractor to test groundwater for contamination.

But, county officials and residents weren’t pleased with the speed of the penalties. Weeks later, there was no word when the testing would take place and the company wasn’t discussing with the public what exactly happened at the Collier-Hogan well. That’s why Collier Commissioners decided to file a legal challenge to the DEP’s Consent Order.

As I reported for WGCU, in that meeting commissioners were accusing both DEP and Dan A. Hughes of being secretive:

Commissioner Fred Coyle said he and the other commissioners have not been able to convince DEP officials to have a public discussion about this.

“The DEP should be here talking to us about their lax enforcement of the current permit and they are not,” he said. “The only way we can get them here is to do so legally.”

DEP officials have been asking commissioners not to move forward with their challenge because the state said it could stop current penalties against Dan A. Hughes from being carried out until the legal issue is over.

Following news that commissioners are still filing a legal challenge, the DEP sent out a press release saying Collier County is “jeopardizing the department’s enforcement action against the company.” The release also said the county’s decision is based on incorrect and incomplete information. Commission Vice Chairman Tim Nance said the statement is outrageous.

“This makes me madder than anything to have a state agency to treat me, who is trying to reach out to you and deal with our county—this is my home too,” he said. “This really messes me up.”

DEP officials insisted they would only talk to commissioners in private meetings in Tallahassee.

Days after a public breakdown between the two groups, a private meeting was set  between officials, including DEP chief Herschel Vinyard and Collier County Commission Chair Tom Henning. Afterwards the DEP began a media tour and asked Dan A. Hughes to be more transparent, as well.

DEP officials also said that they would step in and conduct their own water testing, since the Dan A. Hughes Consent Order was locked in a legal challenge.

According to The News Press in Fort Myers:

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection began groundwater testing in Collier County on Tuesday, but it didn’t go off without a hitch.

Last week, DEP announced it would perform its own groundwater tests at the Collier-Hogan well, located near the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

In April, DEP fined the Dan A. Hughes Co. $25,000 and ordered it to perform groundwater tests at the site for using a fracking-like unpermitted drilling operation. Collier commissioners found the agreement unsatisfactory and filed a legal petition earlier this month.

Since that petition DEP has made several concessions, including ordering the company and Collier Resources, which owns the land and mineral rights, to hold a series of public hearings. The agency subsequently announced it would begin its own groundwater testing.

That testing began Tuesday, but news conferences scheduled at the site were canceled because Collier Resources and the company wouldn’t let media onto the site.

However, this week the state released early results from their groundwater tests. According to state officials, they found no contamination in those tests.

According to The News-Press:

DEP released the results from several groundwater samplings near the Collier-Hogan well Tuesday showing no evidence of pollution from a drilling operation. The findings are the first in a series of tests ordered in response to an unauthorized, fracking-like procedure used at the well this winter by the Dan A. Hughes Co., of Beeville, Texas.

Two private lab analysis are pending, according to a news release from DEP.

“Our lab technicians expedited their analysis and today we have confirmation that the first water-quality tests show that contamination in the area is highly unlikely,” DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said in a statement.

DEP set up six new aquifer monitoring wells last week, along with two existing monitors, to check for contamination from “enhanced extraction operation” the company used in December and January. The procedure involved injecting a dissolving solution into the oil-bearing rock formation at high pressure to ease extraction. The technique had never been used in Florida before and a DEP description matches hydraulic fracturing, which has stirred controversy in other parts of the country.

But, this hasn’t exactly appeased water policy experts and environmentalists.

Via WGCU: 

…Jennifer Hecker, who [works] at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, has warned the state isn’t drilling test wells deep enough.

“Fracking like activity would be very deep in the ground beneath our aquifers that we use for public drinking supply,” Hecker said. “ So, that’s where our groundwater monitoring wells should have been installed. Unfortunately they installed very shallow wells, which are sampling an area which would practically be the last place one would find contamination from this type of activity.”

Hecker said testing should be conducted at no less than 900 feet. The DEP is testing at 13 feet. Officials eventually plan to test at well that’s 400 feet deep.

In a press release, DEP officials said because groundwater is close to the surface in that region, the “shallow depths of these wells [is] the location most likely to be the first impacted by activities at the site, and therefore yield the most accurate results at this point in the process.”

Hecker said she’s concerned these results will give people a false sense of security.

And as NPR points out, this all comes at a time when the state is being explored by oil companies using new technology. The hopes are new drilling techniques could make Southwest Florida a new destination for oil drilling. But, the state doesn’t have the statutory framework to deal with all of the new oil exploration.

According to NPR:

…Hecker says there’s a larger problem. Florida, she says, isn’t ready for the new oil drilling technologies.

“We have some very antiquated oil and gas [regulations] that were written long ago when these kinds of techniques didn’t really even exist or were used,” Hecker says.

Florida’s oil and gas regulations currently make no mention of acid stimulation, hydraulic fracturing or other new extraction technologies. Hughes says that’s why it believes its operations are allowed under Florida law.

Hecker says regulators and lawmakers need to take action before approving more drilling permits.

“This horizontal drilling, the use of all of these chemicals, the high-pressure injection of those chemicals — that’s a whole different process than what we have traditionally seen here in Collier County, so we need to update the laws and regulations,” Hecker says.

On this point at least, state regulators, local officials and environmental groups agree. Vinyard says he has asked his staff to develop recommendations on updating Florida’s oil and gas regulations.

DEP also recently sent out a letter to Dan A. Hughes scolding the company for not arranging public meetings yet. The company has, however, set up a day for media to visit the site in a few weeks.