Miami-Dade County

Lawmakers weigh lifting decade-long water fees for rock mining

A large dredge shovels rock out of a rockpit near Okeechobee Road and the Turnpike at one of eight many rock mining operations in Western Miami-Dade County.
A large dredge shovels rock out of a rockpit near Okeechobee Road and the Turnpike at one of eight many rock mining operations in Western Miami-Dade County. Miami Herald Staff

South Florida rock miners would be spared millions of dollars they now pay to protect wetlands and the state’s largest drinking water supply on the fringes of Miami-Dade County under a bill making its way through the Legislature.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. Rene Garcia, both Hialeah Republicans, would cut fees by 83 percent, ending what was supposed to be an insurance policy for the county against the risk of contamination posed by rock mining. But now, after nearly a decade with no contamination detected in the water, the bill’s sponsors and rock miners, who contributed tens of thousands of dollars to politicians in the last two years, say it’s time to reduce the fee and simply monitor water quality.

The issue began when a chain of lakes was created along the county’s suburban flank in the 1950s as miners dug up rock for construction. South Florida’s water table is so close to the surface that the pits quickly filled with water. The state, trying to mitigate the damage to wetlands, began collecting fees in 1999 that have steadily increased over the years as concerns spread to water quality.

Under the legislation, fees now set at 60 cents for every ton of rock mined would drop to 10 cents.

“I have to compliment the rock association. I never thought I’d live long enough to see a credit coming back,” Rep. Tom Goodson of Titusville said when Diaz laid out the legislation.

But the move would leave Miami-Dade County water customers to foot the bill for about $225 million in water treatment work county officials say is needed for wells that serve about 40 percent of the customers.

The new law also comes just as the powerful industry — Florida is ranked fifth in the nation for producing crushed stone — swings into gear after a slump. Production in the 77.5-square-mile lake belt region, which Diaz said supplies 75 percent of the state’s rock, is expected to pick up as the cost of rock nationwide has risen an estimated 80 cents a ton since 2006. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now reviewing a December request from miners to expand work on 7,500 acres approved in the lake belt in 2010.

Under the proposed change, the new fee will continue to pay for water monitoring to watch for trouble, as well as buy environmental land elsewhere in the county, Diaz said. If testing detects any contamination in water, money for environmental land will switch back to treatment work. Lower fees, he added, could also lead to cheaper rock, potentially saving taxpayers statewide millions in road construction.

But environmentalists say reducing fees without helping pay for water treatment locally is asking Miami-Dade water customers to subsidize roadwork for the state. They also complained that just under half the wetlands already purchased or restored by the mining industry under a mitigation banking plan — about 11,000 acres — included cheaper land in Hendry County far from the wetlands damaged by mining.

“If the wellfield has to be shut down because of [contamination] there will be a problem and that will be because of mining,” said John Adornato, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, which successfully sued to stop rock miners from expanding a decade ago. “The polluter must pay if there is an impact.”

Any change in fees by legislators would also trigger changes to rock miners’ permits, said Corps spokesman John Campbell. The Corps is aware of the move to cut fees but has not decided how it will affect the permits, he said.

Striking a balance between blasting and protecting environmental resources has been a decades-long struggle, mired in court battles and complicated federal permitting. The lake belt itself was a compromise intended to allow mining to continue while protecting the wetlands.

Fees were initially charged to offset the destruction of wetland — the mines are located in one of the Everglades’ last border marshes critical to its plumbing. But over the years, as evidence mounted that the lakes did more than destroy wetlands and the cost of mitigation land rose, fees increased.

After a toxic plume of benzene appeared in 2006 in the county’s Northwest Wellfield, highlighting the wellfield’s increasing vulnerability from the expanding pits, a 15 cent fee per ton was added to improve water treatment.

County officials suspected the cancer-causing agent came from miners, who used benzene in blasting explosives. They never found a direct link, but the contamination sparked studies that uncovered a more surprising discovery — contaminants moved far more rapidly through the porous limestone than hydrologists previously thought. One study in particular alarmed researchers when red dye injected in groundwater turned tap water pink miles away.

Contamination can also move more quickly through water, said University of Miami hydrologist David Chin, so the lakes can act as giant mixing bowls spreading pollution even faster.

The risk, the county concluded, was not from potential pollution caused by mining, but rather the lakes themselves. By peeling back the protective layer of limestone that filters out contaminants, the lakes directly exposed the wellfields.

“The pink water incident really became the basis for the conclusion,” said Doug Yoder, deputy director of the county’s water and sewer department.

The lakes have also been the subject of a court battle waged by environmentalists to stop expansion of the rock mines. In a scathing rebuke in which he suspended permits, U.S. Judge William Hoeveler called the Corps a poor environmental watchdog in rulings in 2006 and 2007, criticizing the agency for using the industry’s own studies in its decision.

Four years later, after the Corps issued new permits that allowed miners to nearly double the area mined to 10,044 acres over the next 20 years, the Legislature added fees for water treatment. But that money was diverted to build seepage walls designed to keep the lakes from sucking groundwater out of the Everglades through the porous rock. Only a portion of the walls have been built, with money in trust, Diaz said, to complete the project.

Yoder said the fee was supposed to revert to treatment, not go away. But now the industry contends that the risks posed by the lakes is overblown, making the fees unnecessary and based “on a false premise,” said attorney Kerri Barsh.

And repeated sampling has failed to turn up any actual contamination in water, said engineering consultant Tom MacVicar.

“We’ve been forced to collect samples and look at it for so long and we just can’t find anything,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of risks the county faces everyday and almost all of them are higher than mining.”

Regardless, the county says it is moving forward with treatment work.

“From our perspective as water suppliers, we feel strongly we need to mitigate this risk as it will become greater over time with the completion of the lake belt,” Yoder said.

The water treatment work was originally estimated at $60 million, but increased as the county examined its needs. Plans now call for constructing a new plant near the Northwest Wellfield, with improved treatment linked to the wells expected to cost about $90 million, Yoder said. Another $270 million is planned for improvements to the county’s old Hialeah plant, with half the costs connected to improved treatment, he said.

Without chipping in for those costs, environmentalists say rock miners are getting off too cheaply.

“We’re getting zero. Zero,” said Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds. “They’re making this huge impact in the lake belt in [Miami-]Dade County and we’re getting no benefit.”