Despite clear bipartisan support for a ban, the state may be paving the way for fracking

Hydraulic fracturing is a practice commonly referred to as fracking. A method of mining oil and gas stored sometimes miles below the earth's surface, it involves use of pressurized water and chemicals to crack or dissolve layers of rock to get to oil and natural gas stores. In Florida, the process would involve boring through layers of the Floridan Aquifer, a naturally occurring layer of porous limestone that naturally stores much of Florida's drinking water and feeds its springs. Environmentalists fear that this, combined with the practice of storing poisonous waste materials underground, would imperil water quality for Floridians. —Kate Bradshaw

click to enlarge Despite extensive support of a fracking ban, the oil and gas industry appears to be on its way to another victory in Tallahassee this year. - Carmella Gioul
Carmella Gioul
Despite extensive support of a fracking ban, the oil and gas industry appears to be on its way to another victory in Tallahassee this year.

This story is part of a special package for Creative Loafing's Earth Day Issue, hitting stands on Thursday, April 20.

Ray Kemble, a Vietnam veteran from Pennsylvania, knows firsthand how fracking affects water quality. Armed with plastic bottles containing contaminated water from his private well, he travels around the country educating legislators and the public about the dangers of the process.

“I call it Lucifer’s lava lamp,” he says, swishing the metallic-colored liquid around in the bottle.

He stopped in Tallahassee in March, near the start of Florida's legislative session, to urge Florida lawmakers to support a proposed statewide ban on the practice of hydraulic fracturing (see sidebar below). The bill's Senate sponsor is State Sen. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican. The bill may have bipartisan support — a rare phenomenon in the current polarized political climate — but oil and gas industry forces are employing a full-court press in Tallahassee to block the bill's passage. Oil and gas money is flowing into lawmaker coffers, and environmental advocates have observed industry lobbyists trying to drown out the concerns of citizens.

Behind the scenes, state officials appear to be quietly creating carve-outs for fracking in state water quality policies (more on that later).

click to enlarge Ray Kemble, the Vietnam vet who says his well was contaminated with fracking waste, and now he has cancer. - Carmella Gioul
Carmella Gioul
Ray Kemble, the Vietnam vet who says his well was contaminated with fracking waste, and now he has cancer.
There are, Kemble said, 27 different chemicals in the water sample, many of them deadly: four types of uranium, barium, arsenic, formaldehyde — to name a few. Where he lives in northern Pennsylvania, his property is surrounded by 10 of the highest-producing fracking wells in the country.

Four years ago, Kemble's property was red-flagged by the CDC for toxicity, but the Obama administration kept it quiet; he never got the memo to evacuate the property. Earlier this month, Kemble was diagnosed with cancer. He also suffers from silicosis of the lungs from breathing in silica dust.

“I’m tired of being sick all the time,” he says to me on the steps of Florida’s Capitol building.

Heather Fitzenhagen, a Republican Representative from the Fort Meyers area, said during a speech in support of Senate Bill 442, the bi-partisan bill to ban fracking in Florida, that fracking is simply “not an economically sound investment.” Florida produced less than 2 million barrels of oil in 2013 — the same amount that Texas produces in one day. On the other hand, Florida’s main industries, tourism and agriculture, would be greatly affected by any damage to our land and water caused by fracking.

Although SB 442 is getting a lot of press, it is currently sitting idle in the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources, of which Republican State Senator Rob Bradley is the chair; he has yet to put it on the agenda. The bill's House companion, HB 451, has not been seen by its first committee.

Linda Young of the Florida Clean Water Network is not holding her breath to see the bill passed into law.

“It’s a steep hill to get anything done in Tallahassee,” she says. “Governor Scott would never sign it. He’s proven over and over and over again that he doesn’t give a damn about what’s good for the people.”

In fact, his administration appears to be paving the way for fracking.

Last summer, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (which is part of the executive branch and thus the domain of Governor Scott) proposed an update to Florida’s Human Health Criteria (HHC). These are health-based water quality standards that aim to ensure that Floridians can continue to safely eat Florida's seafood, and bathe in and drink potable water from state surface waters. Although the DEP is required by federal law to conduct a review every three years, the surface water standards haven’t been updated since 1992.

Despite opposition from citizens, local governments, businesses, doctors, and environmental organizations, the Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC) approved the new criteria with a vote of 3-2 on July 26, 2016. The DEP did not adhere to federal regulations for the hearing, which require that the public be notified at least 45 days ahead of time. Also, there is concern that the public was not well-represented by the ERC, considering two of their seven seats have been left vacant by Governor Rick Scott: the seats designated to represent local governments and the environmental community.

click to enlarge Despite clear bipartisan support for a ban, the state may be paving the way for fracking
Carmella Gioul
DEP Secretary Jon Steverson released a statement the day after the ERC ruling assuring the public that the new criteria “are strengthening Florida's water quality standards, not weakening them.” According to the DEP, the proposed rule sets limits for 39 chemicals that are currently unregulated and updates the standards for 43 chemicals that haven’t been updated for over two decades.

But an op-ed by Bart Biblerformer bureau chief of water programs at the Florida Department of Health and assistant bureau chief of surface water management at the Florida DEP, debunks Steverson’s statement, stating that the DEP chose not to set standards for 20 pollutants that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had provided proposed criteria for.” Bibler also claims that “all of the new criteria that DEP did set are weaker than EPA recommends for Florida to maintain a one in a million cancer risk level.

Many citizens, such as Deborah Trehy, M.D., are worried that the updated standards, which are still awaiting EPA approval, have been lowered for corporate profiteering. The same day Kemble showed off the toxic cocktail that stewed in his well water, Trehy spoke to legislators about the health hazards presented by deteriorating water quality. “Most of the levels [of these chemicals in the water] have doubled,” she told an aide at Bradley’s office, pointing at charts she brought along to help make her case. “Some are increased four-fold, others by 500 and 600 percent. Regardless, we will be above the national EPA’s allowable levels.”

Take benzene as an example. The federal standard for benzene, a known human carcinogen found in wastewater from oil and gas fracking operations, is 1.14 parts per billion. The DEP initially proposed raising the standard from 1.18 parts per billion in Florida’s drinking water sources to 3 parts per billion; after public opposition, the agency reduced the level to 2 parts per billion. During the July hearing, Commissioner Joe Joyce of Gainesville, who represents agricultural interests on the ERC, raised questions about the correlation between the unexplained rise in benzene levels and fracking. Drew Bartlett, assistant secretary at DEP, responded: "We don't see a connection between this rule and fracking.”

Trehy, a Tampa-based gynecologist obstetrician and longtime member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, believes that these changes are being introduced in preparation for fracking. She isn’t the only one.

“It’s helpful to the frackers to have weakened regulations,” Florida Clean Water Network's Linda Young said in a phone interview. “Our DEP is completely working for polluters. They’re not trying to help environmental and human health.”

Randie Denker, a former DEP enforcement attorney, agrees with Young.

“It seems like they’re preparing for fracking,” she said, “by lowering the bar.” 

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