Commentary

Building gas station where it could pollute this Florida spring would be fuel-ish

Panhandle community invokes a famous gator to snap at GA interlopers

March 3, 2022 7:00 am

North Florida’s Wakulla Springs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Russian troops invaded Ukraine last week — you probably heard about that. An international panel of scientists said climate change is worse than we thought, and their prime example is Florida. Meanwhile, our fine Legislature has been too focused on the “culture wars” to fix what’s really wrong with our state (affordable housing, toxic algae blooms, dying manatees, etc.).

Could you use some good news right now? Yeah, me too.

Let me tell you about something remarkable that happened the other day involving one of Florida’s springs. It made me smile. Your facial muscles may have a similar reaction.

It happened in Wakulla County, which would be a great name for one of those old films that Turner Classic Movies shows on Saturday afternoons. As I have mentioned before, this Panhandle county has been described by some inhabitants as the kind of setting that Carl Hiaasen might have invented. It’s full of both natural beauty and stories of backroom chicanery.

Wakulla County is a slice of Old Florida that’s being pushed, shoved, and dragged into shifting from forests and farm fields to suburban sprawl. One good thing, though, is that the county has a comprehensive plan for coping with all the growth.

A Georgia company became attracted to Wakulla by all the new residents and their cars. The Southwest Georgia Oil Co. bought a 7-acre parcel on the Crawfordville Highway (aka U.S. 319) where it intersects with Bloxham Cutoff Road (aka State Road 267).

On this piece of piney woods, the Bainbridge-based company announced it planned to build a combination gas station-car wash-convenience store. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in a sandwich shop, an escape room, and a vaping emporium too.

To build its combo store there, the company needs a little favor from the county commissioners.

The company asked them to change that comp plan. You see, the comp plan has that property zoned for agriculture, period. Nothing but agriculture allowed. To build the 16-pump gas station-laundromat-comedy club, Southwest Georgia Oil needed the designation changed to “rural,” which would allow for commercial development.

At first, the Georgians’ path to the comp plan change seemed as smooth as a just-paved two-lane blacktop on a sunny spring day. They’d even gotten an assist from an influential former sheriff turned real estate maven named David Harvey. He’s such a local rock star that a circuit judge used to keep a life-sized cutout of him in her chambers. (She was later “involuntarily retired” by the state Supreme Court. But I digress.)

This sign marks the undergound location of a cave feeding groundwater into North Florida’s Wakulla Springs. Credit: Gil Damon

However, this Georgia company ran into one little problem. They somehow missed a fairly important sign that had been posted nearby.

The sign said: “Now Crossing Spring Cave 125 Feet Below.”

“They failed to do their due diligence,” Wakulla County Commissioner Chuck Hess told me, chuckling.

Because of what was on that sign, a bunch of people showed up at the county planning and zoning board to holler at them. Then three times that number showed up at the county commission meeting last week, ready to give the commissioners an earful.

And a lot of them were wearing images of a famous alligator. Chomp!

Ed Ball and Old Joe

Wakulla Springs used to belong to the most powerful man in Florida, a 5-foot-4 skinflint named Ed Ball who ruled the state from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Like a cracker Napoleon, Ball presided over a vast domain that included millions of acres of timber, a paper mill, several newspapers, the state’s biggest bank, a railroad, and most of the Legislature. The New York Times once labeled Ball “a clever man with a dollar and a dangerous man to cross.”

Ball’s office was in Jacksonville, but he often holed up in the magnificent lodge he’d built overlooking the spring. There he would confer with the judges and politicians he’d enticed to do his bidding. He’d end every day by lifting his highball glass and toasting, “Confusion to the enemy!”

Ball sold the spring and lodge to the state in the 1960s, and the state officials turned it into a state park. They were glad to get it, too.

The spring was a big prize. It’s been hailed as the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring. Among other treasures, it contained an entire skeleton of a mastodon, as well as the bones of nine other extinct mammals in its system of underwater caves.

Hollywood filmed a true cinema classic there: “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Speaking of creatures, tour guides claimed one denizen of the spring was Henry the Pole-Vaulting Bass, a fish that would perform acrobatics upon command — not unlike the politicians Ball ordered around.

Until 1985, the spring was also home to a ginormous gator known as Old Joe. Joe had allegedly been swimming around in the spring’s main pool for two centuries. When Old Joe died, his 11-foot-2-inch body was taxidermied and put on display in the lodge.

Ed Ball at Wakulla Springs. Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

Wakulla County residents are fond of Old Joe, and not just because he tended to have a better disposition than Ball. They invoked the old gator’s image in launching their attack on Southwest Georgia Oil. They showed up at those county meetings wearing stickers that said, “Vote No For Old Joe.”

Turns out one of those underwater caves that feeds the flow of Wakulla Springs — the one mentioned in the sign — happens to run right under the spot where the gas station-convenience store-flight school-shoeshine stand is supposed to be built.

Daring cave divers, who have risked their lives mapping the underground complex, refer to this cave system as “Chip’s Hole.”  A non-profit diving and scientific exploration outfit, the Woodville Karst Plain Project or WKRP (not to be confused with the TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati”) raised questions about the impact of the gas station.

Southwest Georgia’s environmental consultant had reported finding no sinkholes or other geological anomalies on the property. But that’s just what was visible on the surface. They didn’t bother to write up what was deep underground — but they should have. Underground caves like that are found all over North Florida.

Chip’s Hole hadn’t been a concern when the property was owned by one of Ed Ball’s old corporations, The St. Joe Co. That company grew timber, which seldom spills anything worse than a lot of sticky pine sap.

But a gas station? To paraphrase the cartoon mutt Astro on “The Jetsons”: “Ruh-roh, Georgie!”

WKRP’s leaders asked: What would happen to all the gas and oil that spills at gas stations all the time? Or, worse, what if the gas station’s underground tanks leaked? Or completely collapsed? That happens from time to time. Would all that pollution dribble down into the underground river flowing through Chip’s Hole?

Building a gas station right there seems downright fuel-ish — er, I mean foolish.

By using some dye, WKRP demonstrated that any pollution dropped into Chip’s Hole took just eight days to travel four miles to Wakulla Springs. That got a lot of people’s attention.

The Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park — a non-profit support group for the park — wrote the commissioners warning that the gas station would be “a truly grave threat” to the spring, a popular destination for visitors to the county and thus economically important to the community. “It is too precious a resource to contaminate.”

Remember, a Florida spring is more than just a big hole in the ground that sucks in tourists. Springs are also windows into our aquifer. Any pollution that’s in the spring is also in what you drink and bathe in.

The list of folks opposing the gas station grew to include “Southern Reach” trilogy author Jeff VanderMeer, who lives in Tallahassee, and Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory founder Jack Rudloe. Gil Damon of a group called Clean Water Wakulla told me 50 people opposed to the comp plan change showed up for a Valentine’s Day planning and zoning board meeting.

They were not your typical Not-In-My-Backyard crowd. After all, the gas station would be far from most everyone’s backyard. But its pollution might spill out of everyone’s faucet.

“We are happy to welcome the Southwest Georgia Oil Co. to any other location — just not the one over the cave,” Damon told me.

By the time 150 people showed up for the Feb. 22 county commission meeting, Southwest Georgia had had enough.

Hess told me that, by his calculations, the comp plan amendment might have won support of three of the five commissioners, but the company withdrew its application. In the face of so much public opposition, it retreated like a swimmer in the spring discovering that Old Joe was dead ahead with his jaws wide open.

After learning that they had won (at least for now), the folks in the crowd were too fired up to go home. As the Tallahassee Democrat reported, they still lined up to tell the commissioners exactly what they thought of the application. They did so just in case the Georgians ever try to come back.

That was smart. The nature of environmental victories in Florida is that they tend to be short-lived.

State forests get bisected by new toll roads, preserves get un-preserved as soon as a developer needs that property, and a system for saving gopher tortoises gets junked when the price gets too high.

But, maybe, if the county commissioners who usually jump like Henry the Pole-Vaulting Bass at a developers’ command learn that the voting public has strong opinions in favor of saving a spring, they might remember that the next time it comes up.

You can’t wait for good news

I called the Southwest Georgia folks a couple of times to ask them about whether this was a permanent surrender or a strategic retreat. Their corporate folks failed to respond. Probably too busy bandaging the wounds inflicted by getting snapped at by all the local folks wearing Old Joe stickers.

I also called ex-Sheriff Harvey, but he didn’t respond either. Perhaps he was too busy posing for another cardboard cut-out.

So, I called Bob Knight, the Ph.D. who runs the Florida Springs Institute. He said he was impressed by the size and ferocity of the group defending Wakulla Springs. He hoped it teaches people throughout North Florida that what’s out of sight in the aquifer shouldn’t be out of mind.

After we spoke, though, something occurred to me. There was a theme running through a lot of last week’s news — oil and gas.

Still from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

The Russians were counting on their profitable petroleum industry to finance their invasion and squelch any foreign criticism. Meanwhile, the rest of the oil industry is using the war as an excuse to lobby for more drilling and less regulation. (Ironically, the Russian tanks have already begun running out of gas.)

The climate change scientists warn that our burning of fossil fuels continues inflicting changes on earth and sky and sea, to the detriment of our coastal cities. The more gas we burn, the higher the temperature rises, the higher the seas rise and the worse the problem gets — even as local governments let builders put up houses in areas soon to be flooded.

Meanwhile, our legislators, despite those dire climate warnings, deliberately avoid doing anything to break Florida free of its addition to oil and gas while approving millions to cope with its consequences. They’re also doing their best to kill off our solar industry.

If you want good news like the Wakulla Springs story, you can’t just sit and wait for it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all rose up to complain, like the citizens of Wakulla County did, about our clueless legislators?

We need to challenge not just a single gas station but the whole industry behind it, as well as its governmental enablers. We already know it’s a filthy way to power our cars and trucks — just ask anyone who lived through the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Maybe Southwest Georgia Oil should come back to the folks in Wakulla County and say, “We’re really sorry. We’d like to try again. But this time, instead of a dirty, polluting, gas station-convenience store-whatever, we’d like to build something that’s better for the earth: a non-polluting electric vehicle charging station.”

Ed Ball probably wouldn’t approve, but Old Joe might.

***

Speaking of good news, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week via its social media accounts that it would “pause” its efforts to round up the panther I wrote about last month, Florida Panther 260, for either permanent captivity or death.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups has filed notice that they intend to sue the service for even considering taking FP 260 out of the wild permanently.

I am happy to hear FP 260 is safe, at least for now — although a part of me wishes the feds had spelled pause as “paws.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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