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Judge: Corps failed Glades

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bent the rules to issue mining permits for the Lake Belt, a federal judge finds.

By CRAIG PITTMAN and MATTHEW WAITE
Published March 24, 2006


 

A federal judge ruled this week that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to protect the environment when it approved permits allowing limestone miners to blast to bits more than 5,000 acres of wetlands in the Everglades.

In a scathing, 186-page decision issued Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler said the corps rushed its decision, ignored science, shut out the public and failed to consider less-damaging alternatives.

Hoeveler found that corps officials acted from the start as if the mining permits would be approved. That "sense of inevitability," he wrote, resulted in the corps bending the rules to give the miners preference over the public interest.

While the miners may lose money by having the permits denied, he wrote, "these losses cannot be justification for the ... deleterious environmental effects caused by this mining."

Corps officials - who over the past year have now lost four federal court rulings over their wetland permitting in Florida - declined to comment on Hoeveler's decision.

Environmental activists from the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Fund, who had sued to block the permits, were ecstatic. They said Hoeveler's ruling should immediately halt all mining covered by those permits.

Tom MacVicar, a consultant for one miner, White Rock Quarries, said the company is disappointed with the ruling, which "does disparage the hard work of all the government professionals who have committed their careers to protecting the Everglades." He strongly disagreed that it means a halt to what he called "one of Florida's essential industries."

Hoeveler's ruling highlights flaws in the way the corps issues permits in Florida, where the agency hands out more permits for destroying wetlands than it does anywhere else in the country.

Much of the decision echoes last year's St. Petersburg Times series, "Vanishing Wetlands," which found that corps officials often bent over backward to help developers get their permits to destroy Florida swamps and marshes. Between 1999 and 2003, the corps approved more than 12,000 wetland permits in Florida and rejected just one.

Hoeveler's ruling not only strikes at the heart of a politically influential industry. It also poses a problem for the $10-billion Everglades restoration plan.

A key segment of the plan calls for eventually buying out the miners' 90-foot-deep quarries and turning them into huge reservoirs for supplying water to the River of Grass - if the corps can figure out how to keep the porous walls from leaking.

Because the square, water-filled quarries resemble lakes, the 89-square-mile limestone mining area just northeast of Everglades National Park has been dubbed the Lake Belt.

Mining companies began excavating the Lake Belt's limestone in the 1950s, and now the mines annually produce about 40-million tons of sand and stone used in cement, concrete and asphalt.

When the miners are done blasting out the rock, what's left behind are lifeless lakes that are "probably not nearly as valuable as the wetland that was there before they dug the hole," John Hall, who headed up the corps' regulatory program in Florida for 15 years, told the Times in a 2004 interview.

But when the corps turned down a wetlands permit for a mining company called Florida Rock in 1982, the company sued, arguing that the agency had taken its property. After a lengthy series of court battles, in 2001 the corps settled, paying $21-million.

While that case was still going on, other mining companies asked the corps for permits to continue mining the Lake Belt for another 50 years, expanding to an additional 21,000 acres.

Meanwhile the Legislature passed a law that said the miners would pay 5 cents for every ton they mined into a fund to buy and restore other wetlands - unless the corps failed to approve those long-term permits by a certain date.

Corps officials knew what the Legislature required fell far short of making up for the damage to the wetlands, Hoeveler wrote. But they were afraid that if they missed the Legislature's deadline, the miners might not agree to anything nearly as good.

So they approved permits for 10 years covering 5,400 acres - although Hoeveler found that this approval set the stage for giving the miners approval for all 21,000 acres.

Other government agencies objected to the permits, too, including Miami-Dade County, which was concerned about how close the quarries would be to their well field. County officials warned that the water from the quarries leaking into the aquifer could carry infectious diseases into Miami's drinking supply.

But corps officials rushed through their decision before the county could investigate it fully, Hoeveler wrote. Recent studies have indicated that the county's concerns may be well-founded, he noted.

The corps' own rules say that development and mining that doesn't need to be near water should not destroy wetlands. To get a permit, a developer or miner is supposed to show that no alternative site will work.

But when it came to the Lake Belt permits, Hoeveler found, the corps failed to do that. The corps used "circuitous reasoning" to determine that the mining had to be in the wetlands "since the applicants had requested to mine in these specific wetlands," Hoeveler wrote.

"My reading ... is there appear to be practicable alternatives to mining in the Lake Belt," he wrote.

Hoeveler, 83, may be more familiar with the Everglades than any other federal judge: For 15 years he oversaw a case involving the cleanup of pollution in the River of Grass, even touring the area by airboat.

However, in 2003 attorneys for the sugar industry got him removed from the case for making comments to the Times and other papers about the Legislature's vote to extend the cleanup deadline by another decade.

 
CORPS TROUBLES

This week's ruling in the Lake Belt mining case marks the fourth time in the past year a federal judge has found problems with how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has permitted the destruction of Florida's wetlands. The other three were:

APRIL 2005 A judge overturned a corps permit allowing Florida Rock to mine in wetlands in panther habitat because the corps failed to consider the cumulative impacts on panthers from all the other permits it issued in the area.

SEPTEMBER 2005 A different judge ruled that a corps permit for the controversial Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County failed to take into account the impact of the other development it is intended to spawn.

NOVEMBER 2005 A third judge ruled a special corps permit makes it too easy for the St. Joe Co. to build houses, apartments, offices, stores, warehouses and other projects likely to damage the environment in the Panhandle.

[Last modified December 13, 2006, 18:04:10]


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