Miami-Dade County

Bill shifts tab for treatment from miners to Miami-Dade water customers

About 14-square miles of artificial lakes created by rock mining and expected to grow to 22-square miles straddle Miami-Dade County’s largest wellfield. County officials say the lakes increase the risk of contamination to groundwater.
About 14-square miles of artificial lakes created by rock mining and expected to grow to 22-square miles straddle Miami-Dade County’s largest wellfield. County officials say the lakes increase the risk of contamination to groundwater. Miami Herald Staff

A bill that would let the powerful rock mining industry off the hook for millions in fees and leave Miami-Dade County water users paying the tab for cleaning up drinking water has so far sailed through the Florida Legislature nearly unopposed.

On Tuesday, the bill quickly cleared the Senate’s Community Affairs committee. So far, only two lawmakers have questioned a move that would cut the “mitigation” fees the industry pays to offset risks to the county’s largest wellfield. The fees would be reduced by about 83 percent

“I don’t see why a change is needed in a policy that could potentially protect our water supply,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat and the leading critic of the industry-backed bill.

Two Hialeah Republicans, Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. Rene Garcia, have proposed ending what was supposed to be an insurance policy for any pollution or contamination entering the public water supply through the massive and ever-expanding rockpits that the industry calls the “lake belt.” Mining has so far chewed out about 91,000 acres of rockpits in what used to be wetlands near Miami-Dade’s Northwest Wellfield.

Both lawmakers say the move is justified and contend that in 15 years no contamination has ever been linked to mining, which is surging as the economy rebounds. Eventually, rockpits could cover about 22 square miles.

“Mining activity has no impact on water quality,” Garcia said at Tuesday’s hearing.

But county water and sewer officials, who oppose the bill, say the massive pits create significant risks, have been suspected in past problems and are the reason the county plans to spend about $225 million in water treatment work. Mining blasts gouge out deep layers of limestone that help filter groundwater flowing into the wellfield.

“Just because it hasn’t happened in the last 15 years doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” water and sewer department director Lester Sola told senators.

The state has long collected fees from the industry to offset damage to wetlands — the mines are located along the few remaining border marshes critical to Everglades plumbing. But about a dozen years ago, concern shifted to risks to drinking water.

In 2003, a red dye study by the county and U.S. Geological Survey turned tap water pink in just four hours, far faster than the two to three days hydrologists had predicted. County officials were particularly alarmed because the lakes, a compromise to allow mining to continue by buffering the Everglades from development, can draw more wildlife. But wildlife poops.

And the study suggested that the fecal matter, which carries a potentially deadly pathogen that killed 100 people and sickened 400,000 in Milwaukee in 1993, could quickly contaminate drinking water. University of Miami hydrologist David Chin has said contamination can move even more quickly through the lakes because they act as giant mixing bowls.

In 2006, a plume of the chemical benzene also forced the shutdown of several wells, reinforcing the wellfield’s vulnerability. County officials suspected the benzene came from miners, who use the compound in blasting explosives, but never found evidence definitively connecting the cancer-causing agent to the lakes.

The mounting concerns prompted lawmakers to add fees to cover the cost of water treatment. Total fees now amount to 60 cents a ton, Diaz said, but under the bill they would be cut to 10 cents a ton. Half would continue to pay for wetland mitigation and half would be deposited in the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program. The money would also pay for water monitoring, but not help build reserves for the big ticket cost of water treatment. County officials warn that if the Northwest wellfield is contaminated, water service could be affected for more than 1 million people.

“The county is doing it in an excess of caution, but when you’re talking about 40 percent of the water supply, excess caution is what you want,” Rodriguez said.

Sola told the Miami Herald that Garcia and Diaz said in meetings this week that they want more information about how the county has spent the nearly $19 million it has collected in fees so far. About $13 million paid for an environmental study and design work, he said. The county would like to keep the fee at 15 cents a ton even though, at that rate, it would take 56 years to cover the $225 million projected costs of adding more treatment technology.

Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla also voted against the bill Tuesday, which now moves on to the Senate Appropriations committee, after questioning county officials over potential industry risks. The only other challenge to the bill came from Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley, who opposed the bill because it failed to eliminate the fees entirely.

Florida’s rock mining industry is ranked fifth in the nation for producing crushed stone and is expected to churn out even more rock — the cost per ton has risen 80 cents since 2006 just before the economic slump — as construction rebounds.

“We want to make sure we don’t price them out of the market,” Sola said. “Our job is to take prudent action to be able to safeguard drinking water regardless of what’s in existence today.”

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