MIAMI (AP) Not far from Everglades National Park, slow-moving dump trucks filled with tons of limestone rumble at all hours from rock mines along a strip of former wetlands west of Miami. The “Lake Belt” rock produced from these pits is vital to build roads and make concrete for construction in fast-growing Florida.
Now, the Lake Belt’s future is in doubt because of a recent ruling by a federal judge invalidating 10 permits issued for mining on 5,400 acres. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler said the permits, approved in 2002 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, contain a “multitude of defects” centering on failure to protect drinking water supplies and wetlands and endangered species such as the wood stork.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hoeveler wrote in his 187-page decision in March, “failed to carry out their duty to protect the federal wetlands and protected species … from private exploitation.”
Hoeveler is now considering what to do about the invalid permits, sparking a major lobbying campaign by the miners, the state of Florida and business groups to keep the mines open. The environmental groups who won the lawsuit, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, want an immediate halt to any new wetlands dredging — but not an immediate end to all mining.
The judge planned to visit the Lake Belt mines for a personal inspection and is likely to issue a decision on a remedy later this year.
Mining has taken place in the 57,500-acre Lake Belt since the 1950s, creating thousands of acres of lakes and historically providing approximately half of Florida’s aggregate for roads and construction. A state plan envisions mining continuing for decades, with wetlands in the western part of the Lake Belt to be restored as an offset.
The mining continues even as the state and federal governments are working on a massive, $8-billion Everglades plan aimed at restoring natural water flows and removing harmful substances caused by farming and urbanization.
The state Department of Transportation, in a recent court filing, warned of dire consequences if the Lake Belt mining production is lost. Ananth Prasad, the agency’s chief engineer, said a shutdown “will have an immediate, drastic and long-lasting impact” on the state highway system.
Approximately $1.7 billion of road projects would be delayed in most of Florida, including a “100 percent interruption” of work in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Monroe, Indian River and St. Lucie counties, Prasad said.
The aggregate mined in South Florida is of high quality — especially for anti-skid pavement that improves safety — and is shipped through a well-established network for projects across the state, he added. Replacement rock would be expensive, of lesser quality and not as readily available.
Joining state highway officials in their campaign for the mining companies is an organization called Floridians for Better Transportation, whose 180 members include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, builders and bankers, the Publix supermarket chain, ports and airports officials. They even have a Web site labeled “Keep Florida Rockin” to emphasize their concerns.
“A shutdown of so-called Lake Belt mining would cripple the state’s ongoing efforts to keep Florida moving, and would risk bringing Florida’s booming economy to a screeching halt,” the group said on its Web site.
The environmental groups said all of those claims amount to a “parade of horribles” that is highly unlikely to occur because the case involves disputed permits for only 5,400 acres of the much larger Lake Belt mining region. And nobody is talking about a complete shutdown of all mines, the groups said.
“All of the arguments based on that premise are quintessential red herrings,” according to court filings by attorneys for the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Parks Conservation Association.
The companies involved include Rinker Materials of Florida, Tarmac America LLC, Florida Rock Industries Inc. and APAC-Florida Inc. All told, according to court filings, these and other companies netted approximately $500 million in profits over the past year from the Lake Belt mines.
Even if all mining stopped, there is evidence that several companies have contingency plans to keep the rock flowing to Florida.
Florida Rock Industries, for example, said in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is working on a partnership for rock production on 4,300 acres near Brooksville, in central Florida. Rinker, a subsidiary of an Australian conglomerate with more than $3.3 billion in revenue in 2005, operates in 29 U.S. states and has approximately 90 rock quarries in this country.
“The widespread availability of limestone and comparable materials in other parts of the state or Southeast appear available to replace inventories in the Lake Belt,” the environmental groups said.
Since the permits were issued in 2002, approximately 1,000 acres of the 5,400 acres at issue have been used for active mining. Hoeveler’s March order called for government agencies to do a complete reassessment of those permits, a process that could take 18 months.
In mulling over his decision on how to fix the violations, Hoeveler said he is “faced with a most difficult decision: to balance the rights and interests of these particular mining companies with the rights and welfare of the public.”