Rock Mining: An economic asset, or environmental hazard?


Florida’s economy is known for its housing market, which takes tons of concrete to maintain. Roads that span the state also require limestone for construction, but environmentalists say there’s a high cost of mining the rocks for housing and highway projects.

Swamp lands in South Florida are cheap. They aren’t ideal for commercial development, and no one can build a house on wetlands. The wetlands also provide a pristine aquatic resource, but limestone reserves held deep beneath their surface are attractive to mining companies. Companies like Florida Rock, Titan, and Vulcan mine the rock to make concrete for housing and highway construction needs locally, and also for international exports. But environmental groups like the Sierra Club have recently sued the Army Corps of Engineers for allowing rock mining in the South Florida Lake Belt region. Paul Schwiep represents Sierra Club in their lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.

The EPA recommended the denial of permits to nine mining companies last year, following a ruling that canceled mining permits for the Lake Belt due to water contamination. One of Miami-Dade County’s biggest wellfields is near the mining projects, and The Sierra Club claims this endangers the water supply. The Sierra Club has opposed the permits for what Schwiep said allows the explosion of wetlands to extract limestone.

And although the government plans to buy $500 million in land from US sugar, conservationists say that Florida’s growth and over-development still stand in the way of restoration efforts. Much of the concrete used for building houses and highways that mark Florida’s landscape comes from rock mines in the state. Doug Callaway with Floridians for Better Transportation argues that the mining in the Lake Belt region of West Palm Beach is essential to the economy.

The Florida Department of Transportation reported in 2007 that a 5% cut in Lake Belt mining could result in a $2.5 billion loss in economic output, and 24,000 layoffs. Schwiep points out that the ruling against mining was due to contamination of the water supply.

Inexpensive and locally-mined high quality limestone is exported globally from
Florida, and also keeps local building cheap. The Sierra Club sued the Army Corps of engineers last year for allowing the mining permits, and a US District Court ruled that
the Corps failed to follow the Clean Water Act in issuing the permits. Alan Farago, the conservation chair for the Friends of the Everglades, agrees with the Sierra Club.

The Lake Belt Plan for rock mining got their quarry lakes to be considered as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Callaway insists that Floridians can’t afford to stop the mining, and he has created a group to oppose mining bans called Keep Florida Rockin.

Last week a federal appeals court upheld the decision to cancel mining permits in the Lake Belt Region. But the court’s decision is far from the end of this struggle. Brad Sewell, and attorney for the National Resources Defense Council said that the Army Corps of Engineers is poised to reissue permits in that area. Alan Farago acknowledges the need for local mines.

The Lake Belt region encompasses almost 58,000 acres of wetlands bordering the eastern edge of Everglades National Park and the northwestern edge of Miami-Dade County. It produces about half of the state’s construction grade limestone. Mining companies involved in the suit will continue to seek permits.

Tune in to the WMNF evening news for our continued coverage of rock mining in Florida.

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