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Drilling opponents get good news, but battles continue

Texas-based Burnett Oil Co. withdrew its permit applications to dig on two prospective sites in the Big Cypress National Preserve on Feb. 22, but its pursuit to drill for oil in areas close to both Seminole and Miccosukee reservations might not be over.

Burnett indicated in a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) that it plans to submit new applications. Stacy Myers, senior scientist and liaison for the Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), said Burnett will have to start the process over, which could take years.

Burnett had requested to dig on National Park Service (NPS) land in the preserve. Even though the preserve is part of the NPS, what is underneath the surface, such as minerals and gas, is privately owned.

In its letter to the FDEP, Burnett stated the NPS’s decision to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) instead of an environmental assessment (EA) factored into the company’s decision to withdraw the applications. An EIS can be a long and expensive process.

“With the support against this from the tribe and everyone working together to help get this project denied, it goes to show you how when people come together they can really make a difference,” Myers said about the withdrawal of the applications.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are among the organizations that have expressed opposition to Burnett’s applications.

Burnett’s plans included a single well pad with the use of three directionally drilled wells within the Noble Grade (about five miles south of the Big Cypress Reservation) and a single well-pad with four directionally drilled wells within the Tamiami site. Opponents have feared a directional or horizontal drill could extend drilling activity outside of approved areas.

Burnett provided no mitigation plan for the environmental concerns, including the threat to the water quality. Horizontal drilling is seen by opponents as a potential threat to the tribe’s mineral rights.

A day before Burnett pulled its applications, Lewis Gopher Jr., HERO mentee and Big Cypress Council Office assistant, gave a WebEx presentation Feb. 21 to update the tribal communities about the activities of Burnett. Burnett’s plan for a pipeline was among the concerns discussed in the WebEx presentation.

The plan included a 15-mile above ground pipeline with an adjacent road, loading and distribution facility. In a letter to Thomas Forsyth, the preserve’s superintendent, HERO requested an additional cultural assessment survey since the pipeline was slated to traverse culturally sensitive areas.

“Our biggest environmental concern is the magnitude of the pipeline and the potential for an ecological nightmare,” said Danielle Simon, THPO compliance review supervisor. “It just can’t be ignored.”

Tina Osceola, Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) director, believes the Miccosukee Tribe is on the same page as the Seminole Tribe.

“The well pad is right next to their border,” Osceola said. “Because of the horizontal drilling issue, they have zero confidence that Burnett won’t be taking oil from Miccosukee land.”

Gopher said the Miccosukee Tribe has launched a social media page opposing Burnett’s plans.

In 2017-2018, Burnett was issued a special use permit to seismically explore for oil in the Mullet Slough area of the preserve. Extensive damage can be seen in satellite photos, according to opponents.

“It impacted 111 miles,” Gopher said. “They removed over 509 mature dwarf cypress trees that were between 200 and 2,500 years old, which violated the special use permit. It’s frightening that those trees were just completely wiped out from a national preserve.”

Osceola said a call to action could be an effective strategy to wield influence with those with the power to decide on the permits. However, now the process has slowed down immensely due to the NPS requirement for an EIS. This will give the tribe and others a chance to regroup, she said in an email to the Tribune.

“It’s really important that we remember what rights we have as individuals,” she said. “We can write letters to Tom Forsyth and appeal to our congressional delegation. Letter writing is really important; it’s a true call to action.”

“A lot of people want to do something, but they don’t know how to do it,” said Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie. “A call to action with a letter ready to send is really helpful.”

Fire safety was another topic about the pipeline discussed in the WebEx meeting, which included staff and tribal members.

“The Everglades is a fire dependent ecosystem,” said Joe Frank, a former Big Cypress Board Representative and forester with a degree in forest management from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.

“I’m concerned about an above ground pipeline. It will be dangerous and costly to conduct prescribed burns.”

Gopher posted Forsyth’s address on the chat area of the WebEx meeting. It is: Thomas Forsyth, Superintendent, Big Cypress National Preserve, 33100 Tamiami Trail E Ochopee, FL 34141. Forsyth’s email address is: thomas_forsyth@nps.gov.

Immokalee update

Meanwhile, the intentions of Trend Exploration were also discussed, The North Fort Myers-based company wants to drill a well more than two miles deep near the water wellfields in Immokalee, which could impact the city and the Immokalee Reservation if a spill occurs.

FDEP denied the company’s application Nov. 5, 2021, but Trend appealed. Trend’s case has been forwarded to the Division of Administrative Hearings. The Immokalee Water and Sewer District has been added as a co-intervener in the case.

“The good news is that the district is willing to challenge the application,” Myers said.

Only one drop of oil near the wellfield, or aquifer, can irreparably contaminate the water supply, according to a HERO report in the presentation.

“Habitat can be mitigated, but water quality can’t,” Myers said. “You’ll never restore water resources to where it was if there was a spill. Leaks can last for days, months, years. The impact is a greater magnitude the longer it is there.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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