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Army Corps Reverses Decision Finding Oil Exploration Damaged Big Cypress

A Texas oil company wants to expand oil production in the Big Cypress National Preserve beyond Racoon Point, shown here, which begain in the 1970s.
Jenny Staletovich
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A month after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said a Texas company searching for oil damaged wetlands in the Big Cypress National Preserve, the agency reversed the decision Friday.

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In a letter to Burnett Oil, Col. Andrew Kelly said the Corps had taken another look at information, talked to staff at the preserve and changed its mind.

“Given the environmental sensitivity in the Big Cypress National Preserve and your expressed commitment to environmental stewardship, Jacksonville District looks forward to working with you on any future actions to clearly and transparently identify and take the appropriate action on any regulatory requirements and communicate in a professional manner,” Kelly wrote in a letter first reported by National Parks Traveler Monday.

Last month, the Corps’ chief compliance officer warned Burnett Oil that it had found damage that amounted to a violation of the Clean Water Act.

Robert Halbert wrote that Corps staff had visited the preserve in January after receiving information about damage. They found survey work that amounted to clearing land, which led to degraded water in violation of federal law. Such work, he warned, would need to be approved by the Corps’ going forward.

Burnett plans to survey about 230,000 acres in the 700,000-acre preserve and uses 33-ton trucks to emit seismic vibrations. Critics who have opposed oil drilling in the park say the decision comes as a surprise. They say the information provides no evidence to refute the earlier finding.

“It seems to be based solely on conversations between the Corps, the oil company, and National Park Service staff,” Alison Kelly, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in an email. “A National Park unit deserves the highest level of protections under the law, and this reversal does the opposite.”

A Corps spokeswoman said officials were unavailable for comment Monday because of work addressing the coronavirus. The Jacksonville district is overseeing construction of a field hospital at the Miami Beach Convention Center to treat COVID-19 patients.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.