By Cat Lazaroff
JACKSONVILLE, Florida, April 15, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued permits that approve limestone mining in at least 5,409 acres of historic Everglades wetlands in Florida. The permits will more than double the acreage covered by limestone quarries in a tract between Everglades National Park and the city of Miami, and the Corps has tentatively approved mining on another 10-15,000 acres.
The Corps said its decision to issue permits was based on a 10 year review of the limestone industry and the effects of mining on the local watershed and the Everglades ecosystem.
"The permits are compatible with the larger Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and are part of the legislatively endorsed Lake Belt Plan to mesh environmental restoration with the public's needs for construction aggregate, clean fill material, and cement products," the Corps said in announcing its approval of the mining plan.
Greg May, the Corps official who authorized the permits, said rock from the Everglades quarries supplies about 40 percent of the crushed stone used in cement across Florida for new highways and bridges.
The permits will allow another decade of mining in the so called Lake Belt, a 57,515 acre area established by Florida law for limestone mining over a 50 year period. Mining since the 1950s has created about 4,921 acres of manmade lakes in the tract, located about 10 miles west of Miami.
Because the mine pits destroy historic wetlands, the mining companies are required to fund the restoration of wetlands in other areas, or otherwise compensate for the loss of wetlands. In this case, besides paying for the addition of new wetlands, the restoration includes eliminating the invasive, exotic Melaleuca tree to help reestablish native plants.
"Mining will degrade some wetlands, but the resulting decrease in wildlife habitat is compensated for by increased habitat values in the mitigated areas," said the Corps. "Additional ecological benefits are provided from small areas of marsh that will be created around each completed mine pit."
But conservation groups say the damage caused by the mining far outweighs the positive effects of these mitigation efforts. One major concern is the amount of fresh water that the newly mined areas absorb, siphoning the water away from the Everglades.
The mine pits "serve to drain water out of the Everglades," said Brad Sewell, senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council. "If you expand the area that is encompassed by these pits you expand that drainage."
The mining companies hope to eventually mine 15,000 acres more than has already been mined, creating a 30 square mile set of pits in a wetlands area that was once in the center of the historic Everglades. That amount of mining would triple the amount of water now seeping out of the Everglades system.
"It's as if the Corps is operating in two parallel universes, destroying the Everglades while being entrusted by the taxpayer to save it," added Barbara Lange of the Sierra Club's Miami Group.
The Corps has argued that, in theory, some of the pits could eventually be used as water reservoirs to conserve fresh water for the Everglades. But experts question whether the mining pits would be able to safely or cost effectively function as reservoirs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Interior have objected to the thousands of acres of wildlife habitat that the new mines would destroy, the contamination threat the mines pose to underground drinking water supplies, and to amount of water the pits would divert from the Everglades.
Studies of these threats, their potential solutions, and alternative ways to store and deliver additional water to the Everglades, are now underway. But under pressure from the mining industry, the Corps chose to issue the mining permits before the studies are completed.
"Given the likelihood that this great pit in the earth will irretrievably harm the Everglades and the public drinking water supply, the Corps 'mine first, study later' decision is a gross violation of the law and the agency's responsibilities to the public," said Sewell.