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Permit for oil drilling near homes and panther refuge stirs uproar, prompts EPA hearing

In August, about 100 people marched more than a mile down a beach in Naples to the home of Gov. Rick Scott, where they waved signs that said, "Preserve Our Paradise!" and "Remember BP?"

They set up a 10-foot-tall model oil rig and gave speeches through a bullhorn that urged Scott to reject plans to drill for oil on the edge of a refuge for the Florida panther — and about 1,000 feet from the nearest occupied home in Naples' Golden Gate Estates neighborhood.

Despite that protest and others, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently said yes to the Dan A. Hughes Co.'s application to drill an exploratory oil well on land owned by Barron Collier Resources Co. The move has sparked an uproar, prompting a Florida senator and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get involved.

The DEP said yes on Sept. 20 because the application from the Beeville, Texas, company met all the state's requirements, explained Ed Garrett, who heads up DEP's oil and gas program. None of those requirements involves staying away from where people live.

"A specific distance to homes is not mentioned in the rules," he said.

Florida is not exactly Texas, where oil fields produced 588 million barrels of crude last year. But there are geological formations in the Panhandle and the area west of Lake Okeechobee that produced more than 2 million barrels last year.

As of last count there were 156 active wells in Florida, and the oil they pump out provided $700 million in tax revenue for the state. The oldest oil field is in Collier County, where the company that's now Exxon drilled its first well in 1942.

As oil prices have risen in recent years, it has spurred a push to increase drilling in Florida. The last time the DEP updated its rules for drilling permits was in 1996, said Garrett, a 22-year veteran of the agency. There are no plans for any changes, he said.

In the past five years, the DEP has approved more than 40 oil drilling permits and denied zero. The last time the agency denied a permit for drilling was when it rejected 23 of them in the late 1990s and early 2000s — all applications to drill offshore, Garrett said.

The list of approved permits includes six for the Dan A. Hughes Co. for drilling exploratory wells on Barron Collier property, he said. Neither Dan A. Hughes Co. nor Barron Collier employees responded to requests for comment.

The only unusual thing about the permit application that prompted the protest at the governor's beachfront home, Garrett said, "is that it garnered public attention. Most of them go unnoticed."

This one might have also passed unnoticed except for one thing: a company working for Hughes sent out letters asking Golden Gate residents for information needed to draw up an evacuation plan in case of an explosion.

Alarmed, the residents formed a group called Preserve Our Paradise that organized protests, wrote letters and packed a DEP public hearing. "You're looking at hundreds of homes that could be impacted," said the group's president, retired AT&T executive Joe D. Mulé.

Barbara Maher, 63, a retiree from Ohio, owns one of the homes closest to the proposed drilling site. She bought her property because it's so rural that "panthers walk around our property all the time." She fears what the drilling will do to her water well and her property values.

Less concerned: the staff of Florida Panther National Wildife Refuge, which is about a mile away. Initially they had questions about what effect the drilling might have on the flow of water across the landscape, said refuge director Kevin Godsey. But when they examined the plans, which call for drilling in an area that had previously been devoted to growing crops, they decided it would not cause any greater problems than already exist and thus have not objected, he said.

The news that the DEP had approved the permit despite residents' objections has upset the Golden Gate neighborhood.

"I was devastated," Maher said. "I have been so depressed."

She also went out and bought a gas mask in case the drilling releases toxic gas.

Mulé said the organization plans to file a legal challenge — and not just against the latest Dan A. Hughes permit but all of its permits for drilling near Golden Gate Estates.

In addition, the leaders contacted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has persuaded the EPA to agree to hold a hearing in Naples in October or November.

"Because it's near homes and a panther habitat, the right thing to do would be to at least hear from anyone who might be affected," Nelson explained.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Permit for oil drilling near homes and panther refuge stirs uproar, prompts EPA hearing 10/05/13 [Last modified: Sunday, October 6, 2013 11:46pm]

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