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Lisa Conley gives the scoop on what we are working on today. naplesnews.com

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A Texas-based company has wrapped up a look for oil in the Big Cypress National Preserve, for now at least, but the agency in charge of monitoring the work doesn't know the extent of any environmental damage, a spokeswoman said this week.

Burnett Oil Co. crews drove 30-ton trucks with giant tires into the preserve's backcountry to press vibrating steel plates against the ground and record seismic signals. The signals could indicate underground formations that might contain oil or gas.

National Park Service staff members worked before, during and after the seismic survey to "record, capture and mitigate any potential impacts from the survey," preserve spokeswoman Ardrianna McLane wrote in an email. Work still was ongoing to "determine the scope and complexity of any potential impacts," she wrote.

"Currently, the work location is under higher-than-normal rainfall and flooded," McLane wrote. "We hope to know more as we analyze and record the location for future mitigation."

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Environmental groups went to federal court to try to stop Burnett Oil Co.'s seismic testing, arguing that federal reviewers should have done a more thorough review of the plan's environmental impacts.

The National Park Service found that the effects of the exploration work would not be significant enough to warrant the closer study the groups had sought.

Senior U.S. District Judge John Steele in Fort Myers ruled in favor of Burnett and the National Park Service, allowing the testing across 70,000 acres and opening the door to future testing that could cover more than 200,000 acres.

The Park Service approval came with a list of 47 conditions, including avoiding wading bird colonies, using existing trails when possible, repairing damage as the work progressed and getting sign-off off any repairs from the agency.

The work was allowed only during this spring's dry season, to minimize damage in the sensitive mix of swamps and hardwood hammocks. Work stopped when heavy rains came, and Burnett's state permit for the work expired July 15. 

Burnett would not say how much of the survey they completed and refused to comment for this report.

McLane, with the Park Service, said the agency has not received a new proposal or any notifications of Burnett's next steps.

The South Florida Wildlands Association and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, two of the groups that sued over the work, sent representatives to observe it. They reported finding compacted soils, squashed vegetation and cut trees.

Other groups involved in the lawsuit included the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association and Earthworks.

"It was much more noisy and more invasive than I was expecting," said Amber Crooks, a senior policy specialist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. 

Crooks said she could feel the ground shake when the trucks were at work.

"It was noticeable," she said.

The trucks' paths are obvious in photos; crews were allowed to cut down trees in the way as long as they measured no more than 3 inches in diameter.

Soils were compacted beneath the trucks' wide tires, which were as tall as a worker but designed to reduce impacts.

"It almost feels like a steamroller," said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

The degree of compaction surprised him, Schwartz added.

Even slight changes in ground elevation in a place such as Big Cypress can change the way water flows across the landscape and what eventually grows there.

Compacted soil has a different impact than rutted soil, which also was discussed during the review of the company's plans; flattened soil could prove harder than ruts to repair, if at all, Schwartz said.

"I don't see how the soil springs back," Schwartz said. "What that becomes is yet to be seen."

 

 

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