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Mining amendment buried in bill

State lawmakers voted to wipe out local regulations on explosives, yet many didn't know they had done so.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- As the last minutes of the Legislature's 2000 session ticked away in the Florida Senate, few lawmakers knew what was inside the bills they were passing.

The computers were down, leaving lawmakers unable to review copies of bills and amendments. Bills were being passed without paper copies available. Some senators objected.

"I'm bothered by this," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale. "When we don't have anything in front of us, I'll continue voting no."

"This isn't the way we should end the session or make law -- voting on a 50-page amendment none of us has read," said Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa.

Moments later, the Senate voted to wipe out all local regulations on the use of explosives in commercial rock-mining operations.

The bill that would eliminate the regulations passed 38-1 on May 5, with only Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, voting no. Diaz-Balart said he saw the mining amendment at the last second and voted against it without being sure what it was designed to do.

The last-minute amendment, attached to a transportation bill, was apparently aimed at blocking rules Miami-Dade County officials have been considering in response to homeowners' complaints about blasting in rock quarries near Miami Lakes and other neighborhoods.

But the impact of the amendment reaches far beyond a few Dade County rock quarries. It touches every Florida county that has attempted to regulate blasting at rock mines.

The amendment makes the state fire marshal the "sole and exclusive authority" over standards, limits and regulations of explosives used with mining of construction materials. It directs the state to follow federal guidelines as they develop rules.

"No one knew what was in the bill," Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said Wednesday after learning about the mining amendment from a St. Petersburg Times reporter.

Mining is an important issue in her North Suncoast district. Brown-Waite once campaigned on the need for more regulation in response to complaints from homeowners near West Hernando rock mines.

"Homes were being shaken regularly," Brown-Waite said.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Miriam Alonso said officials from Miami-Dade are asking Bush to veto the bill and call legislators back for a day or two if other elements of the bill are needed.

"I don't have the words to express how upset I am," Alonso said Wednesday. "We have been working for a year with a task force, trying to be fair and reserve the quality of life and maintain a balance between the industry and residents of the county."

Alonso said she suspects a lobbyist working for one of the companies that was at the table negotiating with the county slipped the amendment into the bill.

"A majority of the legislators didn't know what was in the bill," Alonso said. "Can you believe passing a bill when you have no idea what was attached?"

The office of State Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal Bill Nelson, who would get the new duties, discovered the amendment Monday and has not decided what to do with it.

"We had no idea," said Don Pride, spokesman for the state agency. "I'm not sure anybody has had a chance to discuss it with Bill yet."

Jose Diez-Arguelles, lobbyist for Nelson's office, said the amendment runs contrary to another bill that did not pass that would have forced blasting companies to post a bond before setting off an explosion.

"When people figure this out there will be a big uproar," predicted Diez-Arguelles.

Around the Tampa Bay area, official reaction was mixed.

In Hernando County, local regulations limit the areas where blasting can occur as well as the hours of the day: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

"I think it is very out of line for it to happen. I think we need to be the regulator," Hernando County Commissioner Pat Novy said.

"Assuming the governor signs this, when mines exceed the blasting limits, who are the citizens going to complain to? Some state office in Tallahassee?" asked commission Chairman Paul Sullivan.

Pasco County officials said they plan to look into the bill because it would likely affect county rules that regulate blasting.

Officials in Citrus County like the change.

"I think it's long overdue," said Development Services Director Gary Maidhof. "If you have stronger regulations than a county somewhere else, the mining industry says, "You're wrong.' And if you are below somebody else, the residents who live around the mines say, "Hey, you're not doing enough."'

A spokesman for Gov. Jeb. Bush said he is still reviewing the bill and has not decided what to do with it.

The mining clause was part of a "strike all" amendment attached to the Senate bill by House Transportation Committee Chairman Kelley Smith, D-Palatka.

The bill includes another controversial amendment eliminating auto emission inspections in several Florida counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Brown-Waite says she needs to look at what else is in the bill before deciding whether to ask Bush to veto it.

The bill started life as simple legislation authorizing the state Department of Transportation to establish rules. On the final day of the session, the strike-all amendment was added in the House by Smith. He did not return telephone calls Wednesday.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Webster, R-Orlando, urged the Senate to accept the amendment at 6:35 p.m. on Friday, May 5, less than an hour before the session ended.

Webster said Smith wanted the mining clause included in the bill because some state transportation officials were worried about having enough limerock available for road building.

Webster said he began reading a list of what was included in the bill but was urged to stop and allow a vote on the bill before he could tell his fellow senators it included sections on mining and auto emissions.

"I wanted to say at least "emission,' so I said it repeals emissions, and boom they voted on it," Webster recalled.

-- Staff writers Alisa Ulferts, Josh Zimmer, Jeffrey S. Solochek, David Karp and Edie Gross contributed to this report.

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