A small blue heron catches a fish in a marsh in the Florida Everglades.
A small blue heron catches a fish in the Florida Everglades. J Pat Carter/AP

A Florida appeals court has approved exploratory oil drilling in the Everglades, prompting worries about Miami’s water supply and risks to the wetland ecosystem.

On April 23, 2003, hundreds of Miami residents pulled underwear from their washers to find that it had turned pink.

No, the city didn’t collectively forget a red sock in their load of whites: The United States Geological Survey had performed a test.

On the previous morning, scientists had drilled a well near a protected area west of Doral, which was meant to insulate the area’s water supply from contamination. The scientists injected rhodamine, a harmless dye, into the limestone. They believed that the dye would slowly work its way into the local water supply—but they were wrong. It traveled so fast that residents noticed traces of the dye before the day was over. Panic ensued.

It’s no surprise, then, that many Floridians reacted with dismay earlier this month, when an appeals court ordered the state to grant a permit to a real-estate company that wants to drill an exploratory oil well in the prized marshland of the Everglades. The five-acre drilling area lies close to Miami’s northern suburbs. In greater Miami, most drinking water comes from the Biscayne Aquifer, which is porous and close to the surface, making it vulnerable to contamination—as shown by the USGS’s unintentionally prank-like test. Florida hasn’t permitted any new oil or gas drilling for decades.

Tourists ride an air boat in the Everglades. The proposal for new oil drilling is opposed by politicians and environmentalists. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

On February 5, the Florida First District Court of Appeal overturned a decision made in 2015 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to bar Kanter Real Estate from drilling on its land near the city of Miramar. In the initial ruling, FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein rejected claims made by Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early that the prospective drilling area is environmentally degraded and isolated from surface water and groundwater. The appeals court has now dubbed those claims “factual findings,” and is partially basing its overturn of the 2015 ruling on their improper rejection.

Broward County is planning legal action to block Kanter from drilling. On February 19, officials from South Florida municipalities and conservationists held a news conference urging Governor Ron DeSantis to intervene to stop it.

In his 2015 recommended order, Judge Early argued that potential harm to the public water supply from any drilling done by Kanter Real Estate would be “insignificant.”

Matthew Cohen, a professor of forest water resources and watershed systems at the University of Florida who studies the ecohydrology of the Everglades, sees the matter differently.

“The water that people use, that they draw out of the Biscayne Aquifer, is all interconnected with the water that’s flowing through the Everglades,” said Cohen. “Any contaminant that gets into the water is transported. … Because the Everglades is a flowing system, any water-quality problem that shows up in one place ends up impacting areas downstream.”

Even though the proposed well will plunge deep underground—beneath a thick carbonate platform of limestone—to the Sunniland shale formation, Cohen and other experts worry about the effects that drilling might have closer to the surface.

“If something goes wrong, you have the potential to foul drinking water,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University.

Asked about the potential environmental impacts of the project, John E. Kanter, president of Kanter Real Estate, told CityLab, “We have been committed from the very beginning to act responsibly and in accordance with the letter of the law. Our focus has always been to conduct this project in a manner that would be highly protective of the environment.”

Florida has more than 1,000 active oil and natural-gas wells. (Texas, by comparison, maintains more than 180,000.) Florida hasn’t created any new oil-well fields since 1988, and the state produces less than 2 million barrels of oil per year.

To put that in perspective: The U.S. uses nearly 20 million barrels of oil per day. “So, in a year, [Florida wells] produce a couple hours-worth of oil, as opposed to Texas, which produces a billion barrels; North Dakota, 400 million,” Jackson noted. Based on Florida’s relative inexperience in regulating drilling, Jackson believes that mishaps such as spills might be more likely. “Florida has very little infrastructure, very little oversight of oil and gas activities, compared to other states,” he said.

Contamination isn’t the only way that new drilling might affect the region. The Everglades spans almost 2,000 square miles and much of it is untouched. Any human involvement in the area can have a lasting impact.

“The part of the Everglades that they’re proposing to drill in, which is the Eastern part of Water Protection Area 3A, is by many accounts the best-conserved part of the Everglades,” Cohen said. “It’s the part of the Everglades that probably looks closest to how the Everglades used to look.”

The Everglades used to flow like a shallow river for miles at the southern portion of the state. Impediments to that flow can change the area’s hydrology, causing some land to be too wet and other patches to be too dry. The hydrology has already been altered by the construction of I-75 and the Tamiami Trail, a highway that connects Tampa to Miami through the Everglades.

Hindrances to the flow of the Everglades have contributed to harmful algal blooms in recent years, and possibly to the red tides that plagued Florida in 2017 and 2018. In response, Governor DeSantis outlined in January a hefty environmental budget that includes $360 million earmarked for Everglades restoration.

“The Everglades is ... one of the crown jewels of ecosystems in the world,” said Jackson. “Why risk that system for a little bit of oil production that would benefit so few people?”

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