Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Rock mining mitigates risks with political influence

The risks to our water and environment seem self evident. At least to those of us without a sweet and snuggly relationship with Miami-Dade’s rock-mining industry.

Situated in uncomfortably close proximity to both valuable wetlands and the wellfield that provides 40 percent of the county’s potable water, rock miners are blasting and hacking and hauling out prodigious quantities of limestone. Half the limestone aggregate used to build Florida’s roads, bridges, buildings and other construction is trucked out of that 77.5-square-mile area in the northwest corner of the county known as the lake belt region.

Digging that much rock out of a sensitive area comes with such calamitous potential that, over the years, the industry agreed to a series of mitigation fees to stave off government intervention.

Rock miners now pay about 60 cents for every ton of rock they excavate — money set aside to monitor water quality and other environmental effects of the mining process, build water treatment plants to cleanse the suspect water now coming out of the Northwest Wellfield, buy up mitigation land and restore wetlands to offset the land lost to mining, and seal off the leaky walls in that string of rectangular man-made lakes.

But after a few years with no obvious catastrophe, the rock miners decided they can get away with paying less. A lot less.

Similar bills zipping through both houses of the state Legislature with hardly a peep of opposition would cut mitigation fees by 83 percent. As if the risks had disappeared. Never mind that the industry has permits pending with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mine another 7,500 acres of Miami-Dade wetlands.

Environmentalists are appalled. Officials with the county’s water department are worried. But the respective bills, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah and pushed hard by rock-mining lobbyists, will almost certainly pass.

The irony is that this is the same bunch that came up with the higher mitigation fees. Consider these opening paragraphs to a Miami Herald story back in 2006: “Rock miners in Miami-Dade County, facing a serious legal challenge to their billion-dollar industry, say they're ready to shell out big bucks to address environmental problems. They're pushing a bill in Tallahassee that would increase fees they pay for destroying wetlands and also have the industry pick up the whole $100-million-plus tab for drinking water treatment plants to reduce contamination.”

At the time, the industry looked to be in some trouble. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler had whacked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approving rock mining permits without giving proper weight to the risks to the county’s wellfield, to endangered species and to the Everglades. “The private needs of the corporation to earn profits on their investments is not included in the list of relevant factors,” the judge reminded the Corps.

Times change. The Corps redid the permit process but still decided in 2010 that the local mining was “not contrary to the public interest.” And now a couple of legislators from Hialeah have decided that the risks — or at least the risk-mitigation fees — were overblown.

“I think it’s a disgrace and a reckless and dangerous abandonment of the environment and the safety of the water supply,” Michael Pizzi, the embattled mayor of Miami Lakes, told me via e-mail. “It also reverses decades of efforts to provide even minimal protection of the public health and the environment from rock mining.”

Pizzi rose to political prominence as one of South Florida’s leading critics of the rock mining industry. “The reason for this legislation is simple,” wrote Pizzi, who was acquitted last year in a federal corruption case. “The real corruption in Florida is the legalized corruption where legislators rake in millions from special interests who write their own legislation.

“The fact that saving billionaires from paying their fair share to protect the water supply and the public health is a priority in our Legislature speaks for itself,” he stated. “Shame on them all.”

The industry’s outsized political influence dates back to 1981, when the Florida Cabinet, in a bizarre homage to the rock industry’s heft in state affairs, declared that limestone was not a mineral. So the Cabinet promptly dropped any claims to collect mineral rights from the mining operations.

In 1984, the miners persuaded the Legislature to exempt rock mining in Northwest Dade County from state wetlands laws, as if Northwest Dade County didn’t include some of the most fragile wetland tracts in the state.

Back during the Jeb Bush administration, the Legislature gave us a controversial bill that granted state officials the “exclusive” power to regulate blasting activities by rock-mining companies — despite strong objections from Miami-Dade County officials and angry homeowner groups.

And the industry had enough influence over the Miami-Dade County Commission to push through an ordinance in 2006 which re-defined rock mining in such a way that the county permitting process no longer required public hearings. Because the public has never been as enamored with rock mining as the industry’s political minions.

“I don't see that there's any public purpose accomplished by doing this,” said Commissioner Katie Sorenson, after she voted against the measure, with then-Commissioner Jimmy Morales. She said, “The balance is way off.”

If the balance between the public good and the rock mining influence was way off in 2006, it’s damn near tumbled over in 2015.

As Mayor Pizzi said, shame on them all.