Conservancy advocacy results in new evidence for fight against seismic exploration in Big Cypress National Preserve

Beginning in 2017, Burnett Oil Company drove massive vibroseis vehicles through Big Cypress National Preserve’s sensitive wetland environment, cutting down ancient dwarf cypress trees and causing over 100 miles of potentially permanent damage.

Photo Credit: Quest Ecology Inspection Team, April 26, 2018

From the outset, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and our partners –which include Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, and Center for Biological Diversity — fought to prevent Burnett from pursuing this destructive search for oil. Part of our advocacy has been advocating with the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) that Burnett be required to submit a Clean Water Act (CWA) permit application for its seismic work.

Years later, after reviewing numerous reports from expert ecologists quantifying the damage, National Park Service photos, and on-the-ground conditions via a site visit, the Corps validated our concerns in a letter to Burnett.

The letter, dated March 6, 2020, concluded that:

“… the survey activity… caused an identifiable individual and cumulative adverse effect on aquatic function, and that the survey had the adverse effect of degrading a water of the U.S.”

In a February Memorandum for Record that supported the letter, the Corps concluded:

“This memo demonstrates that the oil and gas survey activity… is a Corps of Engineers’ regulated activity pursuant to the Clean Water Act.”

The letter to Burnett went on to conclude that:

“[a] permit will be required… unless [Burnett] can demonstrate… that the activity would not have the effect of… degrading any area of waters of the United States.”

The ruts created new sloughs, altering the Preserve’s hydrology

Surprisingly, a month after the Corps’ official letter to Burnett, the Corps wrote a second letter rescinding their prior conclusions without any new data or analysis. In a later conversation with the Conservancy and our partners to try and explain the apparent flip flop in their position, the Corps stated that they never determined that Burnett’s seismic survey was a jurisdictional activity under the Clean Water Act. However, the Corps also said they would review any proposals for future seismic work in the Preserve. This puts Burnett on notice that any new geophysical exploration applications will receive further federal scrutiny.

The Corps is just the latest environmental agency showing reluctance to hold Burnett accountable for the damage it has done. The Conservancy advocates with the National Parks Service (NPS) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for Big Cypress to be restored to conditions prior to the survey, and for the loss in wetland function since the start of the project — now years later — to be properly mitigated. At this time, we have not seen sufficient restoration or mitigation plans.

The seismic work done to date appears to have altered the hydrology of the Preserve, which naturally flows southward, including flows into Everglades National Park. The heavy vibroseis vehicles created ruts that have diverted water like canals, forming new sloughs with faster-moving water flowing perpendicular to natural patterns. Though Burnett has purportedly completed initial reclamation work, and both DEP and NPS have approved portions of this work, these ruts and sloughs remain.

The Conservancy will continue to fight for the Big Cypress. We can use the Corps’ Memorandum for Record, and associated letter, along with the Corps new attention to this issue, to bolster our efforts in opposing any future seismic activity in the Preserve.

Alligator resting in rut created by Burnett Oil Company, Inc. seismic survey that is still present after approved reclamation. Photo Credit: Mary James, Quest Ecology, Inc., March 6, 2020

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Conservancy of SWFL

Conservancy of SWFL

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Protecting Southwest Florida's unique natural environment and quality of life...now and forever.