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    Apalachicola Riverkeeper challenges DEP plan to permit oil drilling in North Florida

    By Jeff Burlew, Tallahassee Democrat,

    2024-06-06

    The Apalachicola Riverkeeper is mounting a legal challenge to try to stop the latest effort to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive North Florida.

    The nonprofit Riverkeeper filed a petition Thursday seeking to block the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from permitting an exploratory oil well in rural Calhoun County. The "wildcat well," operated by a Louisiana oil company, is located between the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers and upstream from the Apalachicola Bay, where restoration efforts continue following the collapse of its fisheries a decade ago.

    The Riverkeeper's petition, which lists DEP and the applicant, Clearwater Land & Minerals FLA, as respondents, seeks a formal administrative hearing over the controversial drilling proposal. In a news release, the riverkeeper said the permit should be denied because of the potential damage it could cause to the river, its ecosystem and local economies.

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    "Our organization works tirelessly on behalf of our members and the surrounding communities to protect, restore, and advocate for the Apalachicola River and its ecosystem," said Cameron Baxley, Apalachicola Riverkeeper. "Petroleum drilling and the associated industrial activities pose significant threats to the exceptional environmental quality, economic, recreational, and scenic values that this world-class river and bay provide to our region."

    In December, Clearwater Land & Minerals of Shreveport, Louisiana, applied for a state permit to conduct exploratory drilling at the site. In April, DEP gave notice that it intended to grant the permit, which started a 21-day period for someone to file a legal challenge. Last month, DEP gave the Riverkeeper an additional 15 days — which expired Thursday — to file a petition seeking an administrative hearing.

    DEP in 2019 permitted the site for a different oil company, Cholla Petroleum of Dallas, Texas, whose seismic testing in the area yielded promising results, according to Clearwater geologists. But Cholla abruptly pulled out in 2021 before drilling ever began, and state permits lapsed.

    The latest proposal sparked vocal opposition from environmental groups, local governments, state lawmakers from both parties and regular citizens. Many expressed concerns that drilling could lead to accidents, spills and the release of harmful chemicals into nearby rivers, wetlands, forests and wildlife habitats.

    Baxley noted “significant” public and private dollars that have gone toward restoring the Apalachicola River and Bay, which saw its fisheries collapse a decade ago.

    “The prospect of industrial oil production threatens to undermine these restoration efforts and the substantial financial investments made by taxpayers and donors including our members," Baxley said. "These wells are not in the public interest of those who derive income, recreation, inspiration, and quality of life from the Apalachicola River and Bay."

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    DEP noted in a previous email to the Democrat that the permit would allow exploratory drilling only, not commercial production. Were oil discovered, Clearwater would likely seek a new round of permits to begin production.

    Brian Miller, DEP press secretary, told the Democrat in an May 22 email that all permit applications are “carefully evaluated under Florida law to ensure that all aspects of the operation will follow the law and are protective of the environment and human health and safety.”

    “The current pad is situated on a location that avoids wetlands and other surface waters, including a buffer from any nearby wetland areas, and is required to be constructed to withstand extreme weather conditions,” DEP Press Secretary Brian Miller said in a May 22 email. “It must also be inspected and certificated prior to the commencement of any drilling operations.”

    In its petition to DEP, the Riverkeeper said Clearwater's permit should be denied for a myriad of reasons, including the location of the well in the floodplain of the Apalachicola River, an Outstanding Florida Water with a "special water" designation for its exceptional recreational and ecological significance.

    The Riverkeeper went on to say that Clearwater has exposed the project to the "foreseeable risk" of flooding from the Apalachicola River and the "foreseeable likelihood" that floodwaters will carry pollutants off into sensitive areas.

    "This is particularly the case as the applicant has not designed the project in a way to prevent it from being inundated during historical and FEMA-recognized flood risk conditions," the Riverkeeper said. "And the applicant has not demonstrated that such discharges will not degrade the water quality of the Apalachicola River."

    Contact Jeff Burlew at jburlew@tallahassee.com or 850-599-2180.

    This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Apalachicola Riverkeeper challenges DEP plan to permit oil drilling in North Florida

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