Environmentalists Sue to Stop Seismic Testing in Big Cypress National Preserve

For decades, oil tycoons have had their eyes set on Big Cypress National Preserve, a pristine national park in the Everglades at the western edge of Miami-Dade County. The preserve has been a battlefront since at least 2002, when New Times detailed the U.S. government's fight to block drilling there.

Now, with a group called Burnett Oil Co. set to conduct large-scale seismic testing inside the preserve to look for oil, a coalition of environmental-rights groups has filed a federal lawsuit to stop it.

Six watchdog groups — the South Florida Wildlands Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and the nonprofit Earthworks — today filed suit against the National Park Service, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and others in the Middle District of Florida.

The suit alleges the National Park Service failed to address the environmental impacts of Burnett's testing plan. The suit alleges the Park Service violated sections of the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Administrative Procedure Act.

Burnett has been fighting for years to conduct oil-testing on 30,000 acres inside the preserve. (Big Cypress is a mix of public and private land.) Said testing includes driving multi-ton trucks through the area, flying low-altitude helicopters through the skies, and, most notable, literally rattling the ground using seismic-wave "vibrosis" to see if there's oil underground.

The preserve is one of the most biodiverse and well-preserved areas in the Everglades and is home to a population of endangered Florida panthers. The area also serves as a critical "recharge point" for the Biscayne Aquifer, the largest source of drinking water in Miami-Dade County. In May, the National Park Service found that the testing would somehow have "no significant impact" on the wildlife and plants in the area.

Matthew Schwartz, who heads the South Florida Wildlands Association, thinks that finding is, frankly, baloney.

"There will be hundreds of miles of thousand-pound trucks going off-trail," he tells New Times. "They're going into the wetlands. The potential impact is enormous."

Schwartz says his group faults the National Park Service for failing to do its basic due diligence before approving an application such as Burnett's.

"The scenic and wild public lands that encompass the seismic survey area will be significantly disturbed in ways that the Park Service has refused to evaluate fully and disclose to the public," the group's suit says.

Schwartz says the NEPA requires the Park Service to take a "hard look" (those are the law's words, not his) into the environmental impacts of any "major federal action."

"If testing on 70,000 acres of land isn't a 'major federal action,' I don't know what is," Schwartz says. "NEPA requires a 'hard look' at all potential impacts, human and environmental, before a project takes place."

According to a release the group sent out, Burnett's plan is only the beginning:
The seismic activity approved in May is only the beginning. Burnett’s broader plan includes three additional phases of exploration. The first, approved phase alone rivals the largest seismic testing operations ever to occur in a national park unit. If all four phases are approved, the area affected would ultimately encompass about one-third of the preserve (366 square miles or 234,000 acres), an area larger than many national parks, including Shenandoah, Acadia, Crater Lake, Biscayne, and Zion.

On top of that, seismic exploration could be just the first step in destructive oil development in the area. If Burnett finds oil or gas in the preserve, it will likely lead to harmful oil or gas development such as drilling, fracking, or acidizing—and the roads, pipelines and more that go with it, bringing even greater disturbance and risks to wildlife, habitat, and water supplies.
“The impacts to wetlands, wildlife, and cypress trees caused by these colossal trucks pounding the ground are unacceptable,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the release. “And if they eventually end up drilling for oil or gas, this last remaining intact habitat for rare and threatened wildlife will be put at tremendous risk.”

Schwartz, meanwhile, says he's motivated to continue fighting because he has simply fallen in love with the reserve.

"It's a place like no other I've ever been to in the world, and I’ve traveled a lot," he says. "Big Cypress has not degraded. All the native plants are still there."

He adds, "It’s not an easy thing to sue the National Park Service and the secretary of the interior, so we don’t do this lightly. We're basically suing Obama."

Here's a copy of the complaint:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.