Mining blasts away at Glades' future
By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2001
MIAMI -- The dump trucks rumble out of the CSR Rinker mine, swirling a fine gray dust in the air. Just as the dust starts to settle, another truck full of rocks comes barreling past and stirs it up again.
Every day, politically powerful mining companies like Rinker blast tons of chalky white limestone out of the ground in Miami-Dade County to feed Florida's insatiable appetite for concrete.
To excavate the rock, the miners have torn up 11,000 acres of Everglades wetlands. They have destroyed the fertile swamps, replacing them with comparatively sterile "lakes" as square as a stamp.
And now they want more -- 21,000 acres more. Whether they get it is a decision with consequences both for Florida's economy and for plans to restore the Everglades.
The mining companies justify the expansion by pointing out that they supply half the limestone used for construction in Florida. They say "there is no practicable alternative" for building the state's roads, sidewalks, sewers, schools, stores and houses.
The mining will drive out alligators, deer and endangered wood storks that live in the swamps, according to a county study. Digging the deep quarries disrupts the flow of the River of Grass, according to the National Park Service. And county utilities officials fear that water pooling in the quarries could wind up contaminating drinking supplies for more than 1-million people.
But federal and state officials insist the mining industry is going to help save the Everglades and boost South Florida's water supply.
Last year Congress and the Legislature approved an $8-billion plan to restore the ailing Everglades to a semblance of its former glory and provide enough water for South Florida's population to double.
One of the most expensive parts of that plan, with a price tag of $1-billion, calls for allowing miners to continue destroying wetlands for several decades. Then the 90-foot-deep quarries would be combined into massive reservoirs to store water for release into the Everglades or for use by utility customers.
Even the architects of the reservoir plan concede it may not work. The porous limestone walls of the quarries tend to let the contents seep out like a bathtub full of holes. So far no one has figured out how to keep the water in.
Yet those reservoirs "are pretty well a key ingredient in the Everglades plan," said Albert Townsend, director of real estate and environmental services for Tarmac Florida, one of the mining companies. Scott Benyon, a CSR Rinker vice president, calls it "a real win-win for everybody."
Because the water-filled quarries resemble lakes, the 89-square-mile mining area has been dubbed the Lake Belt. That term "is a nice sounding word to describe the destruction of thousands of acres of Everglades wetlands to create rock mining pits," the environmental group Friends of the Everglades complained in a letter to Congress.
The proposal to destroy part of the Everglades to save the rest has not been without controversy. Friends of the Everglades, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have notified federal officials they intend to sue.
Even other federal agencies have balked at allowing more Lake Belt mining. Department of the Interior officials say the miners are destroying "the last remnant" of a type of marsh "critical to the proper functioning of the Everglades ecosystem."
There is no way to make up for such a loss, they said, and the deep holes left by the miners are "biologically unproductive and functionally impaired."
Not true, according to Townsend: "Sometimes our employees catch some nice bass."
The Lake Belt's limestone was formed in the prehistoric Pleistocene era. The soapy rock starts just beneath the swampy surface and extends down about 100 feet. Mining companies began blasting it out in the 1950s, and now three of the biggest rock quarries in the country are in the Lake Belt.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, 10 mining companies amassed more than 26,000 acres just northeast of Everglades National Park. The two largest companies are Tarmac, owned by a Greek multinational corporation, and CSR Rinker, which is part of an Australian conglomerate.
Every year the mines produce about 40-million tons of sand and stone, which is used in cement, concrete and asphalt. Lake Belt limestone built Orlando's theme parks and the Kennedy Space Center. Despite the slipping American economy, the mining business is booming, Townsend said, primarily because the state is building a lot of highways.
The mining destroys about 400 acres of wetlands a year. Normally when anyone destroys a wetland, the law requires replacing it with double or even triple the acreage. But government officials have never made Lake Belt miners replace what they destroy.
Federal regulators have required only that the miners leave a shallow lip 100 feet wide around the edge of each quarry. These 3-foot-deep shelves are supposed to mimic wetlands in attracting wildlife.
If the quarries become reservoirs for Everglades restoration, the water will fluctuate so much those shelves will be left dry and thus be worthless, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
As it is, the shelves do not come close to making up for what is lost. Rinker has mined more than 2,500 acres but has built just 100 acres of shelves, plus one 38-acre wetland in an area that could not be mined.
According to a 1996 county study, the shelves as built simply do not work. The study suggested reconfiguring them to better mimic wetlands, but county officials say miners have not tried those techniques.
"The bottom line is to maximize rock-mining at the expense of any sort of environmental mitigation," said George Dalrymple, the consultant who did the study for the county.
Since the 1980s the Legislature has repeatedly exempted the miners from the state's rules protecting wetlands. As the final exemption neared expiration, lawmakers decided to charge the companies 5 cents per ton of rock to pay for the damage.
"That money will be more than sufficient to offset any negative impacts we have," Townsend said.
The fee is based on a calculation of the amount of money required to replace each acre of Lake Belt wetland that was destroyed with 21/2 acres of new or restored wetlands. That is half what's required of other developers, say Interior Department officials.
In practice the fee works out to less than $15,000 an acre, Dalrymple said, even though Miami-Dade developers usually are forced to pay $45,000 an acre to replace wetlands.
"Now that's a sweetheart deal if ever there was one," he said.
The miners contend the wetlands they are wiping out are hardly pristine. Exotic melaleuca trees have "substantially and significantly invaded" it, Benyon said.
Yet Dalrymple's study found that Everglades wildlife was still there. Even endangered wood storks still used it.
National Park Service experts have pointed out that there are ways to remove melaleuca that do not require blowing up the swamp where it grows.
The future of Lake Belt mining is now at stake. The miners' federal and county permits for destroying wetlands are expiring. And for the first time they will be required to get state permits.
The 10 companies together have sought federal permits to mine 21,000 acres over the next 50 years. Initially the Corps of Engineers, which denied a Lake Belt mining permit in the 1980s and now may be ordered by a federal court to pay for effectively taking the property, was going along with that request.
But after environmental groups threatened to sue last fall, the Corps backed off. For now Corps officials are considering permits for mining just 4,000 acres over 10 years, with the rest to come later.
One crucial question the Corps hopes to answer in the next decade is whether the quarries might contaminate the water supply. Near the center of the Lake Belt is the Northwest Wellfield, which serves more than 1-million people.
Federal studies show that the water in the quarries is of "stupendous quality," said Benyon, the CSR Rinker vice president. But county utility officials fear more extensive mining could leave behind water tainted with deadly microorganisms such as cryptosporidium, which in 1993 got into Milwaukee's water supply and killed more than 100 people. Mining officials say they will pay for extensive monitoring.
Although no new permits have been issued, the mining has not stopped. Last month several government officials visited one of the wetland areas Tarmac wants to mine. When they got there, they found the swamp already gone.
"The site was completely dug out," said Dalrymple, who was along on the site visit.
Four months ago, county zoning officials discovered that Rinker had mined an area that was supposed to be kept intact. When they asked the county's environmental watchdogs to punish Rinker, nothing happened. An internal county memo notes that one environmental official discouraged the zoning department from even putting anything in writing.
"To my mind, this is the best example of why you can't trust the industry," said Michael Pizzi, who leads a group suing the miners. "And it shows that the people who are supposed to be regulating the mining industry have abdicated their responsibilities."
Pizzi's group, Citizens Against Blasting, consists of homeowners who think vibrations from blasting at the mines have cracked their homes. The companies say shoddy construction is to blame.
Nevertheless, last year mining officials sat down with homeowners and county officials to form a task force to limit blasting. Before the County Commission could act on the task force recommendations, though, the Legislature abruptly took away the county's power to regulate blasting.
Benyon, who represented Rinker on the task force, said the mining companies quietly pushed for the legislative change because they were tired of trying to appease grandstanding county officials. He said he did not warn the rest of the task force about the change because "you never know if you're going to be successful or not."
To Pizzi this shows the miners' tremendous clout. They are generous contributors to politicians in both Congress and the Legislature. Since 1997, Rinker's parent company has donated more than $130,000 to candidates in state races, including more than $44,000 to the state GOP and $13,000 to Florida's Democratic Party.
For their critics, the mining companies have one answer: Florida cannot afford to shut us down. If any government agency were to deny the miners a permit, "the state of Florida would come to a halt," Townsend contended. "The economic engine for everything would come to a halt."
But EPA officials and environmental groups contend there are economically viable alternatives. Although Lake Belt limestone is far cheaper than any produced elsewhere, half of the state's limestone already comes from other sources besides the Lake Belt, they pointed out. Some states import the rock they need.
Last year Florida imported more than 4-million tons of cement from other countries, according to William Toal, chief economist of the Portland Cement Association, a national trade group. Right now, the imports are "quite a bit cheaper, even with the transportation costs added in, because the Asian economy is in quite a tailspin."
EPA officials have asked why mining cannot be limited to part of the Lake Belt that has already been excavated, rather than allowing it to expand.
That would provide enough rock for the next 15 years, EPA officials said. Perhaps that would be enough time, they suggested, to allow Florida to find another source of limestone that does not require blowing big holes in the Everglades.
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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