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Army Corps Abruptly Rescinds Its Position on Seismic Exploration in Florida’s Big Cypress

Army Corps Abruptly Rescinds Its Position on Seismic Exploration in Florida’s Big Cypress

Agency Removes Clean Water Act Protections for National Preserve in Everglades

NAPLES, Fla.— The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed its own recent determination finding that the Texas-based Burnett Oil Company damaged “high quality wet prairie and dwarf cypress” wetlands in the Big Cypress National Preserve, degrading a water of the United States. This damage resulted from the oil company’s first phase of seismic testing for oil in this national park unit.

The Corps’ new letter, dated April 7, provided no explanation or scientific justification for its sudden change in position one month after the initial determination.

“This 180-degree about-face is suspicious to say the least,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Corps’ original findings on the oil industry’s harm to this beautiful place were rooted in hard evidence and supported by science. It’s baffling that the agency could completely change its mind about the documented, widespread damage in the preserve.”

“As a former Florida enforcement attorney, I am stunned by this reversal. It enables the oil company to trample wetlands in a National Park unit using 33-ton ‘vibroseis’ vehicles without a federal Clean Water Act permit,” said Alison Kelly, a senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Everglades and its endangered species, such as the Florida panther, deserve the highest level of protections under the law, and this does the opposite. Even worse, it tells the fossil fuel industry that applying pressure to the Administration will be rewarded by relief from compliance with environmental laws.”

“In early March, National Parks Conservation Association applauded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for providing a detailed, fact-filled letter acknowledging that the critical wetlands within Big Cypress are protected by the Clean Water Act, and that any future oil exploration attempts must be regulated under federal law. We are not aware of any such detailed evidence provided to support the apparent reversal in the decision made last week by the Corps,” said Dr. Melissa Abdo, regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association. “We have viewed the channelization and well-documented damage inflicted to Big Cypress, and such damage to our nation’s first national preserve is appalling. During this time of a global health crisis, now is not the time to make rash decisions that could weaken protection for an iconic national park unit within America’s Everglades.”

“Sensitive wetland landscapes like the Big Cypress need protection from destructive activities like Burnett’s seismic survey. We are disheartened that the Army Corps reversed their determination even after seeing the damage with their own eyes. The public deserves an answer from the Corps regarding whether this was a political decision, as no sound science has been shared to demonstrate this reversal was science-based and in the public interest,” said Gladys Delgadillo, environmental policy specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

The Big Cypress National Preserve is a freshwater wetland ecosystem that cleans and feeds water to Everglades National Park. It consists of more than 700,000 acres and is the largest remaining contiguous habitat for critically endangered Florida panthers. Starting in 2017 Burnett Oil drove 33-ton “vibroseis” trucks and other vehicles off-road through 110 square miles of dwarf cypress wetlands and high-quality wet prairie. This is the first of four planned phases of seismic testing, which will ultimately encompass over 360 square miles, or one-third of the preserve.

The Corps’ initial determination relied on pages of photographs and other evidence documenting significant impacts to wetlands in the preserve and concluded that seismic testing for oil should be regulated under the Clean Water Act. The Corps’ reversal lacks any scientific support and reads like an apology letter to the oil company.

Conservation organizations the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and National Parks Conservation Association sued the National Park Service in 2016 to prevent the company from destroying the preserve through seismic oil exploration activities, but a federal judge upheld a permit issued by the National Park Service.

In 2017, before Burnett Oil Company initiated the first phase of seismic testing, the Corps stated that a Clean Water Act permit would not be required based on representations made by the oil company. But after visiting the preserve to investigate the damage caused by the seismic activities earlier this year, the Corps found significant impacts and determined that future activities would likely require Clean Water Act protections. This finding was rescinded in the April 7 letter.

In January the Center and NRDC urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to protect Big Cypress from new fossil fuel exploration and development. The governor has not yet responded.

vibroseis trucks in preserve_QUEST ECOLOGY INC_FPWC-scr.jpg
Vibroseis trucks in preserve. Credit: QUEST ECOLOGY INC. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at NRDC.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.​

Since 1919 the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its nearly 1.4 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is a nonprofit, regional environmental organization dedicated to the protection of Southwest Florida’s land, water, wildlife and future through advocacy, science, education and wildlife rehabilitation.

For Immediate Release, April 14, 2020

Contact:

Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 490-9190, jlopez@biologicaldiversity.org
Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518, ahawke@nrdc.org
Gladys Delgadillo, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, (760) 877-8012, gladysd@conservancy.org
Kyle Groetzinger, National Parks Conservation Association, (202) 893-3391, kgroetzinger@npca.org

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LINK:  https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/army-corps-abruptly-rescinds-its-position-on-seismic-exploration-in-floridas-big-cypress-2020-04-14/

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