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Ruling paves way for cement plant permit

An administrative law judge says the state DEP can approve the project near the Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


A judge Thursday cleared the way for the state Department of Environmental Protection to allow a controversial cement plant to be built near what has been hailed as the most pristine waterway in Florida.

Opponents of the proposed Suwannee American cement plant had challenged the DEP's plans to issue a permit allowing the $130-million plant to spew certain levels of pollutants into the air 3 miles from Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

They were particularly concerned about the DEP permitting the plant to emit 184 pounds of mercury a year, fearing that the airborne pollutant would settle into not only the Ichetucknee but also the nearby Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers.

All three are classified by the DEP as "Outstanding Florida Waters," which means polluters are not allowed to degrade their water quality at all.

Administrative Law Judge Larry Sartin ruled Thursday that the company did not need to prove it would not harm those rivers. Nevertheless, he said, the company has given "reasonable assurances" that the amount of mercury that would fall from the air onto those waterways was so small that it would not be "adverse to the public health, safety and welfare."

"It was pretty resounding," said Ken Oertel, one of Suwannee American's attorneys.

However the judge did agree that the plant should cut its mercury emissions to 97 pounds a year. Meanwhile the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended the DEP make the company cut that to just 20 pounds a year.

Patrice Boyes, an attorney for the environmental groups that challenged the permit, Sierra Club and Save Our Suwannee, said Sartin's order failed to resolve a "troubling aspect" to the issue: "When you apply for an air pollution permit, you don't have to comply with water quality standards."

The groups have 15 days to raise objections to the judge's order, which then goes to DEP Secretary David Struhs for a final decision. However, Boyes said her clients are likely to ask Struhs to recuse himself because of his role in brokering a deal with Suwannee American last fall.

The plant has been at the center of controversy since its owners sought a zoning change from the Suwannee County Commission. The DEP's parks director urged commissioners to reject it because the plant "may pose a threat to air, water and scenic qualities" of the region. But commissioners granted the change.

Suwannee American is affiliated with paving giant Anderson Columbia, a politically influential company and one of the state's most persistent polluters.

Initially the DEP turned down the cement plant permit because of Anderson Columbia's poor environmental record. But after the company sued, Struhs worked out a deal to grant the permit in exchange for the company admitting it was guilty of past environmental wrongdoing, putting $1-million into a river protection trust, giving land to the state, selling an ecologically important mine to the public and training its employees to protect the environment.

While some plant opponents have challenged the DEP's intent to issue the permit, others have sued to overturn the county's land use decision allowing the factory to be built in an area zoned for agriculture.

The neighboring landowners who sued were joined by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who cited concerns about the county's compliance with state growth management laws and a possible threat to the state's park. They lost at the trial court level and are appealing.

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