Better Lake Than Never?

Officials insist the Lake Belt created by limestone mining in Northwest Miami-Dade will be an eco-panacea. Critics say that's all wet.

The 59-year-old Larsen is a civil engineer by trade who came to rock mining in the late Seventies after representing developers in the bruising environmental battle over a resort on Florida's Marco Island. It was a time when the U.S. government was just beginning to understand the importance of wetlands, and a raft of new conditions was being required before developers could destroy the marshes. Larsen started an environmental firm to help companies navigate the new bureaucracy and soon found many of his clientele were rock miners who needed him to pull permits so they could continue their trade. The rock miners already had begun to purchase large chunks of historic Everglades in Northwest Dade beginning in the Sixties. In those days a massive effort to save the Everglades was still just a fantasy of a few activists.

In 1984 the state legislature passed the Warren F. Henderson Wetlands Preservation Act to safeguard natural areas by imposing mitigation requirements for destroying wetlands. The theory went that it was okay to obliterate wetlands as long as the developer restored them somewhere else. A year before an Army Corps of Engineers environmental study had concluded that rock mining could continue in Northwest Dade as long as the industry limited its activities to areas where there were heavy infestations of the exotic melaleuca tree, which the state desperately wanted to eradicate. Melaleuca, originally introduced to dry up the Everglades, grows quickly and has an insatiable thirst for water. When the Henderson act passed, the legislature in Tallahassee granted the rock miners a decadelong exemption to the new law. It was just one of a string of giveaways for the rock miners, who regularly contribute the maximum to political candidates.

In 1990, with four years left on their exemption, ten of Miami-Dade's rock miners formed a group called the South Florida Limestone Mining Coalition to try to safeguard the area for mining in the future and negotiate a single mitigation fee. The biggest among them were CSR Rinker, Tarmac Florida, White Rock Quarries, and Florida Rock Industries. All together the group owned 47 percent of the Lake Belt.

The miners present a united front through engineer Paul Larsen
Steve Satterwhite
The miners present a united front through engineer Paul Larsen
Joe Podgor vows he won't let fellow environmentalists trash his life's work
Steve Satterwhite
Joe Podgor vows he won't let fellow environmentalists trash his life's work

The rock miners' wants were simple and single-minded: Extract as much money from the area as possible. The incentive for mining was as strong as ever. The state Department of Transportation had implemented standards for road building that precisely matched the specifications for Miami-Dade County limestone. Before they continued to finance more infrastructure -- like the roughly $30 million White Rock spent on the giant Marion dragline -- the miners needed assurances.

"They have this huge investment," says Larsen, a slight man with protruding eyes who is sitting behind a cluttered desk in his Brickell office, the walls dominated by hydrological maps and a giant photographic print of an Everglades tree island. "That investment was justified based on presumptions of what would happen in the future."

The engineer pitched the miners a solution to their problems that not only would allow them to continue to extract limestone but would also cast the industry in the unlikely role of environmental savior. Larsen envisioned a Disney World of artificial lakes. The establishment of fringe wetlands around the lakes would placate regulators. Most of the area owned by the miners was infested by melaleuca anyway, though environmentalists argue it can still support wildlife. In 1992 the legislators created the Northwest Dade County Freshwater Lake Belt Plan Implementation Committee, made up of government regulators, miners, and environmentalists to develop a plan for the area. Finally in 1999, based on a complex formula, a law was passed in Tallahassee setting a fee of five cents per ton of mined rock to pay for all the wetlands destroyed.

As an added sweetener, the rock miners pledged to swap their holdings in a western tract of the Lake Belt area that abuts existing Everglades called the Pennsuco wetlands. The Pennsuco alone remained relatively unscathed by exotics like melaleuca. The miners say they are willing to sell 3700 acres of their land in the Pennsuco wetlands in exchange for cash and the rights to mine government-owned areas in the Lake Belt. (The government owns 16.6 square miles or about 10,600 acres in the entire Lake Belt.) If environmentalists objected Larsen would simply open their eyes to the alternative: the sprawling suburbia pushing into the Everglades across the Broward County line.

"In essence the miners are another land use other than subdivision, which [is] better for the people down the road," he insists.

To win the endorsement of outdoorsmen, they promoted the future lakes as a mecca for bass fishing. At the same time, they also offered them as reservoirs to safeguard Miami-Dade County's drinking water. The two ideas were in direct conflict with each other but with so much acreage in play, the miners believed they had enough room to promise something for everyone.

"These lakes provide a huge recreational opportunity for the community that has to be meshed with the competing interest of wellfield protection," acknowledges Larsen.

The final selling point for the rock miners came along unexpectedly as a gift from the Army Corps of Engineers, which was struggling with how to provide space for water storage to aid Everglades restoration. In the corps' plan, the lakes could be used to provide water for Everglades National Park during droughts.

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