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Lynne Buchanan is an internationally known photographer and writer who has traveled the world and left behind a record of the beauty and wonders she has experienced. She did not find that in Tallahassee.
What follows is a sad story, hard to understand, but true, as witnessed by this writer who attended and participated in two previous committees hearing with a similar scenario, same bills and many of the same people.
It Is Not Just Rivers That Lack a Voice–Government Does Not Listen to People Either
Yesterday, despite thousands of calls, letters, and petitions to Senators, the bill to permit fracking was passed 13 to 6 in the Senate Appropriations Committee with only a handful of comments on the amendments by the Senators, before permitting the shortest possible public comment period they could allow while still pretending that was part of the process, and no further debate whatsoever. This tactic was made possible by putting the fracking bill last, with only twenty minutes left in the last and final session and with most of those minutes taken up by reading the amendments. A couple of Senators asked “questions” that honestly felt staged and rehearsed to me, especially in light of the responses they received. More citizens came for this bill than any other, and they had put in appearance slips at 10 am. Clearly, the Senate Committee members were aware that people were there to speak about this bill and though many had driven great distances to speak and patiently waited all day, they were restricted to one minute or less to voice their concerns and the Sierra Club lobbyist was denied, ostensibly due to time constraints, from reading a passage from the bill that they likely did not want the public to hear.
For a long time, my position has been that the government is broken and I don’t want to have any part in it. I am a very empathetic person and easily take in negative energy. I suspected I would become physically ill if I entered into this arena and I was right, but boy was it worth seeing firsthand–despite how incredibly discouraged I am as a citizen. I really believe that a Senate Hearing is a process everyone should attend once in his or her lifetime, so that you become aware just how your rights are being upheld or denied or whether you in fact have any. Before I attended this hearing, I suspected with we live in a Corporatocracy and not a Democracy. Now, I know this is most assuredly true and that it all boils down to the power of Big Oil, which often appears to be wielded through corruption, manipulation, and the stripping away of human rights, as well as the rights of landowners and the land itself. I do not believe this is at all what our forefathers had in mind when they established our government and wrote the Constitution.
At the last water rally I attended in Tallahassee, David Cullen, the Sierra Club lobbyist, told me that if I really followed through with my stance and gave up on the government, then I was totally abdicating my rights. And let me just add, that he is a true gentleman and appears to be extremely respectful of the governmental process and must at least want to believe you can work within it to accomplish your goals or he likely wouldn’t work so hard at what he does. He spends countless hours going through every bill and amendment in great detail, to make sure he understands the intent. We need to applaud these people, because the way bills are often worded makes them difficult to understand without an interpreter and I frankly doubt if all the Senators understand what they are voting on either, especially when the people they are supposed to represent aren’t permitted to explain their objections and there is no time left for debate before the vote. We are putting the future of our State in the hands of our elected representatives, so I think it is important to consider their qualifications, how deeply they study the bills, whether they engage in true debate that examines the consequences of their decisions, and whether they are free of undue influence. After yesterday, I cannot honestly vouch for many of them.
Before we went back into the meeting after the noon recess, David’s wife told me she was happy I was there and that I should never give up my rights. They might try to take them away, she added, but I shouldn’t abdicate them without a fight. Yesterday my rights were taken away, as were the rights of all citizens in Florida who do not buy into the power of Big Oil. The environment, I have known for a long while, is without rights in this State, but until yesterday I was unaware just how egregious the stripping of rights of Florida’s citizens truly has become.
There were many bills up for consideration, as this was the last day of these hearings. The first bill had to do with the ending of the LIP program and the dire economic straits hospitals are in. Ten minutes before I entered the hearing room, I learned my mother had experienced a transient stroke the night before and it had taken seven hours for her to get a bed in the ER because so many people without coverage were using it as a doctor’s office. I was indeed convinced that keeping hospitals open was critical and applies to everyone, no matter what party they belong to. Obviously, this was a worthy issue to consider and I could see why so many people had flooded the hearing room. There clearly is no way that hospitals can close, or the health of the population will be even more threatened than it already is now. People like my mother and the senators considering appropriating funds for hospitals might have a life-threatening emergency at any time and need to go to one. Hospitals aren’t just for the homeless or people on welfare, so they get support. Yet fracking is just as serious an issue for the health of every person in this State no matter what party they belong to or how rich or poor, and the way this issue was handled in the Senate yesterday was appalling.
Merrillee Jipson-Malwitz, of Our Santa Fe River, Inc. and Save our Suwannee, Inc., and I arrived a little before the session began at 10:00 in the morning. She planned to speak and I had driven up with her to talk about her work on behalf of these two rivers and all she had been doing to educate the public about fracking. The bill about closing the gap on Federal Lip money that was running out took the whole morning until recess to consider. When we returned, to the hearing room many other smaller bills pertaining to settlements, alimony, and other issues were voted on, so many in fact that before the water bill even came up, I had to go out and feed the parking meter. While I was walking to the parking lot, I suddenly realized that they were going to address the fracking bill last, probably to leave little time to address it and in the hopes that many people had left by then. No one in the hearing room seemed to have an agenda, just papers that had bill numbers on them that weren’t being followed in any order. Discussion about the education bill went on for at least 45 minutes, even though the Senators had conceded early on that they were going to have to continue their conversations later. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was intentional stalling going on. There was a small pretense that comments were going to have to be restricted to get through the agenda, but that didn’t really happen until the fracking bill was up and then they got very serious about time limits.
Though I believe very strongly in the importance of education, women’s rights to alimony and support, especially when they try to re-enter the workplace in middle age like I have had to do, and compensating people when they have suffered wrongful harm, many of these issues could be revisited and remedied at a later date. Even the water quality bill keeps coming up for consideration on a yearly basis. Standards can and are changed constantly, though albeit in Florida the changes often relax the law and make the standards less stringent (one water amendment voted upon stated water quality must now be seriously harmful and not just harmful, no doubt to protect Big Sugar) but that is another issue.
The problem with the fracking bill is that if it gets enacted and oil companies begin drilling, there is no way the damage can be undone. It will be too late. For something of such serious magnitude, did this not deserve more than twenty minutes–especially since so many of those minutes had to be spent reading amendments and not examining the overarching issue of fracking or debating whether it should be allowed at all? Why was this issue being silenced, and why was it only being considered in a Senate Appropriations Committee? The severity of the impacts of fracking are beyond monetary, as the waste from it can never in fact be cleaned up no matter how much money you throw at it. The argument supporters of this bad bill frequently use is that any regulation is better than no regulation. Unfortunately, that presupposes allowing fracking in the first place and it is way too dangerous for many reasons citizens tried to spell out that were either not allowed to be voiced or were given short shrift. Senator Joyner withdrew several amendments that would have made fracking difficult or impossible with little explanation. Senator Dean was not there to discuss his amendment that proposed a moratorium on drilling until testing was complete. From what I had observed all day, the fracking bill was being handled in a very different and strange way.
Senator Negron did ask if under the new amendments fracking would be more or less safe, but this only provided an opportunity for Senator Richter to use the fallacious argument spelled out above. Then Senator Latvala chimed in that he too had received lots of calls from his area and asked for some reassurance from the DEP that it was a good bill. Shockingly, Ms. Cobb from the DEP came up to the podium and said with a big smile, “It is a good bill.” That was it. What her grounds were for considering this a good bill she clearly did not feel she was being asked to specify, nor did she appear to feel it was necessary for the people in the room to know. Her smile alone should have reassured us all. I was frankly very offended and the thought came to me that the DEP no longer deserves to have the P in its name, because it is clearly not protecting the environment, at least in Florida. Only one Senator, Senator Montford, said that he felt the bill deserved more time to be analyzed and that he would like to have questions answered and the bill and amendments explained in more detail. He represents many of the counties where fracking could take place, including Leon County, the very location of our State Capitol. Of course, there was no time for that.
Here are some of the issues Senator Montford and the rest of us should have been allowed to hear, and these are just the ones I have learned about:
The type of fracking to be used in Florida is much more dangerous than typical fracking, and will require 10 to 20% acidizing versus 1%. With the limestone geology of our state, which is essentially already naturally fracked because of its porous nature, EPA records show that injected fluids might migrate and surface, especially in improperly plugged wells from the 1940s.
- We do not want these chemicals to ever come in contact with our water supply. It is known that high levels of toxic benzene are found in fracking wastewater. Exposure to benzene will make everyone very ill, no matter what party affiliation they have. Ray Bellamy and Ron Saff, both from Physicians for Social Responsibility, were there to explain all the health issues that would ensue, although they too were cut short. To make matters worse many of the chemicals in fracking wastewater are considered proprietary and there is a huge screen of confidentiality about exactly what would be released, even though these chemicals could end up in our water supply. Once we become ill, we would not be able to get into the wells to find out from what.
- For the first time in human history, we are essentially taking water completely out of the hydrological cycle. Fracking wastewater is so toxic that it has to be injected deep into the earth. It cannot be cleaned up. Even if the wells were never to fail, which is highly unlikely give how frequently wells, contamination ponds, pipelines etc. have failed since the oil industry began, fracking would still be reducing our water supply and as the world is running out of water and more serious wars will erupt over that than over oil, this does not seem wise at all. In California, fracking uses 82 billion gallons of water a year, which is enough supply for the populations of San Diego and San Francisco for an entire year, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. In Florida, we are already draining the aquifer at an alarming rate and we are simultaneously suffering the effects of saltwater intrusion, which will only get worse. In fact, I have been told the springs will not last my lifetime.
- Not all the wastewater ends up in injection wells. Some of it still comes up as back flow and that water is likely quite toxic too.
- Many landowners do not own the mineral rights on their property. If you don’t and the oil companies discover you have oil, they can drill on your property. Additionally if they drill within ½ mile of your property, your well water supply will likely be contaminated and your property values are going to go down.
- If Big Oil is allowed to extract all the oil in its reserves, the planet will become uninhabitable from pollution and the effects of climate change. Wall Street analysts are aware that oil stocks are seriously overvalued for this reason, but this is something Big Oil absolutely does not want us to know.
These are very serious issues that the very survival of the planet and the human species revolves around. No wonder the whole atmosphere of the hearing room changed when the fracking bill finally made it to the floor. Right before it was announced, I noticed the Senators’ gazes becoming more intense and people standing at the sides of the room seemed to begin puffing their suits. It was as if their body language indicated a flexing of muscles designed to keep the citizens in order and make sure this bill made it swiftly through at all costs, despite the wishes of the public. I had to wonder how many people in this room had been paid off in one way or another.
I am not an angry person and consider myself an advocate and not an activist. Making it through this day required all my inner strength and grace and repeated consideration of how the Dalai Lama might handle being in this space. I am so grateful to Dave Cullen, Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, Ray Bellamy, Ron Saff, Amalie Datz, John and Gale Dickert, Karen Dwyer, and the countless others who have either appeared at these hearings, or organized virtual events. They do their very best to educate the public and ensure that our voices are heard and the repeatedly go back into the fire over and over again. The time is now to band together and start from the bottom up to create change on all levels: our dependence on energy, who we elect, the way the political system functions, all of it. Sadly, the system is even more broken than I anticipated it would be, and that breaks my heart when I think of the earth, my children, and future generations for as long as there are any.
In concern and with hope for the future of our beautiful State of Florida and my home,
OSFR is grateful to Lynne Buchanan for permission to post her article in its entirety. She will post it online in her blog in the near future. She currently lives and works in Micanopy, but her home base is Sarasota.