Fight over protection of Florida spring detonates a furor at county commission meeting

In wild Wakulla County, a citizen-led anti-pollution measure hits a wall of political resistance

July 27, 2023 7:00 am

Jack Rudloe, in red told, to leave Wakulla County Commission meeting on July 17, 2023. Source: Screenshot of commission broadcast

Last week I talked to an 80-year-old Florida man who had quite a story to tell. He tried to talk to his county commissioners about protecting one of the state’s most prominent springs.

It didn’t go well.

He wound up being handed a trespass warning and, as he put it, being “shoved out the door by [a sheriff’s captain], who unfortunately acted like a thug.”

All over Florida, citizens are taking action to stop the rampant ruining of what they value about our state. Sometimes they win their battles.

For instance, in Port St. Joe, the citizens recently beat back a secretive push to build a liquified natural gas plant on their waterfront. The project would have benefited a state representative and his family, but not the local community.

But in other places, the entrenched local power structure hangs on by any means necessary. For instance, in Titusville, the voters approved a measure making clean water a right, but the city council is refusing to certify the referendum results — even after a judge told them they had to.

In Wakulla County, where 80-year-old Florida icon Jack Rudloe got his trespass warning for advocating for the protection of a spring, the jury is still out.

The most Florida of counties

Wakulla County may or may not be the most Florida of the 67 Florida counties. If it’s not No. 1 on the list, it’s at least in the top three (along with Pasco and Polk).

Aerial view of Wakulla Springs c. 1967 via Florida State Archives

It’s filled with beautiful places, such as St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and a big chunk of the Apalachicola National Forest. Best of all is Wakulla Springs, which the state park folks call “the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs.”

It’s also where Hollywood filmed such cinematic masterworks as “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). And it’s home to one of the most amazing events in the state, the annual Sopchoppy Worm-Gruntin’ Festival.

But what really makes Wakulla County rank so high on my list of Florida-riffic places is that every time someone tells me about some political chicanery there, they always say it’s just like something Carl Hiaasen would make up. (NOTE: Carl doesn’t really make anything up. He just changes the names.)

I suspect this dates to the days of skinflint millionaire Ed Ball, who owned a paper company, a bank, a railroad, a huge lodge at Wakulla Springs, every politician around, and most of the judges.

Back then the spring was occupied by a dragon-sized gator everyone called Old Joe. When Old Joe died in 1985, his 11-foot-2-inch body was taxidermied and put on display in the lodge. Ball, 5-foot-4, was not similarly honored.

Wakulla has come a loooooong way from those days. Once a quiet haven with few residents, it’s now experiencing lots of booming growth. That’s what attracted the Southwest Georgia Oil Co., which bought a 7-acre parcel on the Crawfordville Highway.

On this wooded plot of land, the Bainbridge-based company says it wants to build a combination gas station-car wash-convenience store with 16 gas pumps. It’s possible they may eventually build other combo businesses, such as one for payday loans, a parole office, and pole-dancing lessons, but that’s just me speculating.

To build what the Georgians say they intend to build, they have to persuade the county to change that parcel’s designation on its comprehensive plan for future growth. It’s currently “agriculture,” which means nothing but farming is allowed there. They need it changed to “rural,” which would allow them to proceed.

To smooth their path to approval, they got an assist from popular former Wakulla County sheriff-turned-lobbyist David Harvey. How popular is Harvey? A circuit judge used to keep a life-sized cutout of him in her chambers that was visible to people in her courtroom.

But there’s a big problem, bigger than Old Joe. The problem isn’t what’s on that undeveloped parcel. The problem is what’s underneath it.

Limestone like Swiss cheese

Florida has many special attributes that set it apart from those boring square states out West (sorry, Nebraska).

Florida is the only state where mermaids are on the state payroll. It’s the only state with professional python hunters. And it’s the only state where someone has been accused of assault with a deadly weapon where the weapon was an alligator.

Swimmers at Wakulla Springs via Florida State Parks

One of Florida’s most amazing distinctions is that we have more freshwater springs than anywhere else in the world.

That’s because of our karst geology, which is what you call limestone when it looks like Swiss cheese. The water that’s under our feet flows through all the holes, and where it breaks out on the surface becomes a spring.

The downside is that sometimes the limestone collapses. This is why Florida has more sinkholes than anywhere else.

Folks in Wakulla County feel extremely protective of their namesake spring. It’s not only their best tourist attraction and thus their main source of income. The water gushing up from these underground caverns is also the source of their drinking water.

But the place where Southwest Georgia hopes to build its pump-the-petroleum station sits right on top of one of the underground caverns that feeds Wakulla Springs, a cave called Chip’s Hole.

We know that fact thanks to volunteer cave divers who have diligently mapped the Wakulla cavern system. These daring folks amaze me. I got claustrophobic once just crawling under my house to clear out a dead possum. The cave divers willingly plunge down hundreds of feet inside the earth.

The cave divers, who hail from a group called the Woodville Karst Plain Project, dropped some dye into Chip’s Hole and showed that any pollution — say, from petroleum products sold at a gas station — would take only eight days to travel four miles to contaminate Wakulla Springs.

When Wakulla’s populace learned about this last year, about 150 people showed up at a county commission meeting to protest the comp plan change. A lot of them wore buttons showing a picture of Wakulla’s spirit animal with the motto, “Vote No for Old Joe.”

Southwest Georgia’s decisionmakers, sensing the river of popular opinion was running against their company, withdrew their application to change the comp plan.

But they — and, I’m guessing, ex-sheriff Harvey — didn’t go away. They’re just biding their time.

Like an A-bomb blast

In 1994, Wakulla County adopted a springs protection ordinance. It was fine for its time. But it would not have prevented the 16-pump gas station to be built above Chip’s Hole, so people called for updating the ordinance.

After all, imagine what havoc a single sinkhole could play with a petroleum tank big enough to supply 16 pumps.

“Wakulla County residents want stricter regulations of hazardous materials to protect groundwater, but county staff tell commissioners the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is not providing any guidance on how to meet citizens’ demands,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported back in May.

Women lined up atop the Wakulla Springs sign.

On June 5, County Administrator David Edwards said he and the county attorney had finally met with upper-level DEP officials to talk about a new springs protection ordinance that had been drafted. The ordinance would be tougher than the state’s own rules, so DEP had to approve it.

“The Florida DEP indicated they would not approve any heightened regulations by Wakulla County,” Edwards told commissioners.

The DEP officials, a group which he said included the agency’s general counsel, claimed Wakulla could pass nothing but an ordinance that mirrors what’s already in state law. Edwards said he saw no point in that.

“It’s just a feel-good ordinance. It’s worthless,” he told the commissioners.

While the commissioners were waving the white flag, though, the people concerned about clean water pushed forward.

“In response to the roadblock from the DEP, concerned citizens organized community forum sessions to explore alternative proposals that could gain approval,” the Wakulla News reported.

The people who gathered to hammer out a proposed ordinance included “fishing and aquaculture experts, professors, divers, retirees, scientists,” the Wakulla paper reported. One key part of the ordinance called for petroleum tanks to be set back from the underground caverns, which several people said was a land-use decision that the counties were allowed to make regardless of what the state does.

I checked with the DEP about all this. The agency emailed me a long statement that said the state is not the one blocking a springs protection ordinance.

“The authority to enact a local ordinance — such as the proposed Wakulla Springs Water Quality Protection Regulation — rests solely with the county,” the statement said. “DEP never “rejected the county’s proposed ordinance. Instead, DEP, and Wakulla County government officials discussed opportunities for the county to undertake and become an approved storage tank program.”

Chuck Hess. Credit: Wakulla County Commission

The ordinance the citizens came up with found a receptive audience with one of the five commissioners, Chuck Hess, a retired wildlife biologist.

During last week’s well-attended commission meeting, Hess made a motion to send the citizen-written springs ordinance to the county’s planning and zoning committee for study. This is the usual first step for vetting any ordinance for any legal or scientific concerns before voting on its passage.

But he couldn’t get a single one of his colleagues to second the motion. Not one.

Without a second to the motion, no one could even discuss the springs protection ordinance, much less vote on it.

I watched a video of this meeting. It felt like I should have worn some dark goggles. That moment marking the premature death of the citizen-written springs ordinance detonated like the A-bomb in “Oppenheimer.” If I’d had hair, it would’ve been blown back.

As soon as the crowd attending the meeting comprehended what had happened, people began howling with outrage. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean literal howling, like Wolfman Jack had been resurrected from the dead and was back on the radio spinning platters.

I called up Hess to ask him what happened. Why would his fellow commissioners reject a citizen-led push for springs protection? Why strangle this infant in its crib?

“Our commission didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to discuss it,” he told me. “They’ve never seen a developer they didn’t like and never seen a citizen they’re not willing to offend.”

Do not go gentle

I have watched a lot of county commission meetings in the past 40 years, mostly in places like Pensacola, Sarasota, and Punta Gorda. A lot of them were dull, a few were spicy, and occasionally there was a verbal free-for-all. For the most part, though, everyone behaved themselves.

What happened after the failure of Hess’ motion at the Wakulla County Commission meeting was unlike anything I have ever seen.

While some members of the audience continued howling and screaming things like “NO!” others got up and walked to the front of the room to confront the commissioners. Some walked right up to the dais and started yelling in their faces, wagging fingers at them.

No, I couldn’t tell for sure which finger.

Wakulla County Commission meeting, July 17, 2023. Source: Screenshot

Others plopped themselves down on the lip of the dais, much like the sit-ins of the 1960s. Although I saw no one wearing a tie-dyed shirt, most of the angry folks looked old enough to have been at Woodstock.

People in the audience continued yelling things like “you should be ashamed of yourselves” and “who’s gonna pay to replace all our wells when they get polluted?”

This was the point at which Rudloe, founder of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea and author of several books about the natural world, got into trouble.

Rudloe had already spoken up twice to support the push for springs protection. Now he joined the group confronting the four cowardly commissioners.

Commission chair Ralph Thomas, whose job as a mortgage loan officer means he directly benefits from the boom in new home sales, told the protesters they were impeding the lawful progress of the meeting.

As for what they were protesting, he said, “This is a matter of political science, not science.” That brought fresh howls, prompting Thomas to threaten to clear the room.

“You gonna arrest us?” Rudloe asked, gesturing at all the protesters.

“Deputy,” the chairman said, “I am asking you to escort this gentleman out.”

When there were more shouts, Thomas instructed the deputy: “Trespass ’em.” So he did, handing out trespass warnings to a few protesters, including Rudloe. (The subsequent shoving apparently occurred off-camera.)

While watching Rudloe stand up for clean water instead of hanging out on a golf course or playing bingo at the seniors club, I thought of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem about old age: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day.”

I also thought of the irony of what’s under the county commission chamber.

The irony under their feet

In 1992, two years before the first springs protection ordinance passed, Hardy was still sheriff. That is also the year that a fuel tank that gassed up the sheriff’s patrol cars leaked onto, and into, the ground.

It’s still there — a plume of petroleum pollution about 125 feet down, extending 2,000 feet from its source, Hess told me. It’s heading toward two of the county’s drinking water wells, located about a quarter of a mile away.

In 2009, the Florida DEP classified the site of the spill an “imminent threat.” The agency said the petroleum contamination “appears to pose an actual or imminent threat to public health and safety or the environment.” So far, the county has not cleaned it up.

Jack Rudloe with gator at Gulf Specimen lab via Jack Rudloe

“Once petroleum hits the ground, it’s really hard to fix the problem,” Hess said.

The sheriff’s office relocated, and the county commission moved into the building. As a result, the plume is now under the very chamber where the commissioners were refusing to stop a future petroleum spill from contaminating Wakulla Springs.

Yet somehow Hess’ fellow commissioners don’t get the comparison — or not yet anyway. Hess told me he plans to keep bringing up the citizen-written springs ordinance, trying to win over enough colleagues to pass it before Southwest Georgia resubmits its comp plan application.

In the meantime, I think the folks who wrote the ordinance should organize a bucket brigade of sorts.

They should show up at every commission meeting with a bucket of fresh gasoline and offer to pour drinks for all the commissioners. Promise to use the fanciest flagons to quench their thirst — but no coffee, tea, or water as an alternative. And encourage them to lift their pinkies when lifting their drinks for a good guzzle.

After all, if the commissioners love gasoline more than their famous spring, they should be willing to sip this noxious stuff like it’s fine champagne. And if they howl like Wolfman Jack, tell ’em this is what irony tastes like.

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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. 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.