Naples, Florida (News-Press) -- For hours they debated, questioned and opined. They haggled, waffled and amended and amended again.
Then they finally voted.
At a meeting Monday, the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee voted to recommend denial of a permit to drill near Golden Gate Estates. The vote represents a small victory for oil drilling opponents.
"I get a feeling that approving this permit is pulling our finger out of the dike" said Jon Arthur, a geologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and chairman of the committee.
During the hourslong hearing, state regulators were grilled on the practice of oil drilling and about the proposed horizontal well east of Naples, at the doorstep to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The committee, an arm of the DEP held a meeting this month regarding the well but opted to extend the hearing to a second session.
The committee voted 4-1 to recommend denying the permits. The lone dissenting vote came from David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. The five-member panel is comprised of an industry representative, a DEP scientist and environmental experts. The committee's decision is nonbinding.
For hours, the panel launched questions at Ed Garrett, head of the DEP's Oil and Gas Division and the state's top drilling regulator.
Garrett walked the committee through drilling diagrams and practices down to concrete casing thickness and water-flow projections.
The goal of the committee is to advise the DEP regarding all potential disruptions to the Big Cypress watershed. The recommendation will now be submitted to an administrative law judge who is reviewing a permit challenge to the well.
It also marked the second time this month the recently reformed Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee, a governmental board aimed at protecting the Big Cypress National Preserve and its watershed, has met.
The meetings were organized in response to a proposed oil well near the rural Golden Gate Estates neighborhood. Last year, the Dan A. Hughes Co. of Beeville, Texas, applied for a permit to drill an exploratory oil well in Central Collier County.
Golden Gate Estates resident Thomas Mosher, along with activist organization Preserve Our Paradise and the Fort Lauderdale-based South Florida Wildlands Association, filed a formal protest with the state and requested a hearing.
In a hearing in Fort Myers last month, a Division of Administrative Hearings judge heard testimony about the permit and is expected to issue a ruling this spring.
Since last May, the issue has stirred the ire of local environmental groups who view the well as detrimental to aquifers, sensitive preserve land and the critically endangered Florida panther.
On Monday about 60 opponents of a proposed oil well in Golden Gate Estates turned out once again to voice their opinions. Before the meeting, the group was warned about decorum and stated any unruly members would be removed.