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.

In a better stroke of fortune still, the rock miners garnered support from some environmentalists who helped devise the plan.

For Joe Podgor the Lake Belt is a lot more than just rock quarries or reservoirs. He sees the project as his legacy to South Florida, which is why current attacks by his former colleagues in the environmental movement leave him bewildered and wounded. Many of them credit Podgor with helping to invent and legitimize the Lake Belt concept, and they are not pleased.

The Sierra Club's Barbara Lange believes the miners are getting a free ride
Steve Satterwhite
The Sierra Club's Barbara Lange believes the miners are getting a free ride
Jane Gentile helped prevent the miners from ducking responsibility for the effects of blasting
Steve Satterwhite
Jane Gentile helped prevent the miners from ducking responsibility for the effects of blasting

In conversation on the subject, Podgor presents himself as part downtrodden salesman à la Willy Loman, part quixotic crusading dreamer, and part eco-Rambo, fighting solo against injustice. Yet there is little about his appearance -- the 54-year-old activist is heavyset and wears thick glasses -- that would suggest a leading man.

"You know I've been trying to be an environmental pain in the ass for about 35 years," he says by way of introduction one recent afternoon after ordering a liverwurst sandwich at a Miami Springs diner called the Cozy Corner.

Podgor's lifelong passion is water. To hear him tell it, he came to the issue via his favorite fishing hole, a canal west of Miami Springs, his hometown. In the Sixties he watched as industrial development from nearby cities crowded around the municipality. His fishing hole, which locals know as the Ludlum Canal, grew progressively more polluted until Podgor decided something had to be done. In this drama he casts himself as a neophyte, an English major freshly graduated from the University of Pennsylvania full of idealism.

Although his efforts led to some small improvements in enforcement of local dumping laws, it also brought to his attention the precarious nature of Miami-Dade County's water supply. The aquifer that holds the county's drinking water is surrounded by extremely porous limestone. Pollution travels quickly through the rock. This is the story of most of Miami's original wells, which systematically were defiled as development moved west.

"I decided what we had to do was get the public to understand that this was drinking water and that all these canals, like my fishing hole, interconnect and also feed the wellfield," Podgor recalls.

He launched his activism by serving on a county wellfield protection committee and forming a civic organization he dubbed Save Our Water, Inc. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, Podgor fought a series of battles to halt development near the county's western drinking wells. He cobbled together a coalition of civic organizations he calls the "condo commandos." He won a couple of battles but lost many more. His concern was drinking water rather than wildlife, and few of his fellow environmentalists joined him in the struggle, he claims.

"It is nothing to do with loving birds and bees and alligators," he asserts. "Yeah I love all that stuff but that's not my bag." During his days of activism, he supported himself with odd jobs, often in sales. "I've sold everything from Easter eggs to bicycle pumps," he says. "I sold people on the idea of fixing the Everglades."

After about fifteen years of zoning battles, Podgor says he realized development couldn't be halted piecemeal. "The only technique that successfully stopped sprawl in the State of Florida was the Atlantic Ocean," he declares.

In search of an answer, he envisioned in the northwest of the county a spread of lakes filled with fish, yet treated like reservoirs to safeguard Miami-Dade's westernmost drinking wells. His fellow environmentalists had long given up on the idea of challenging the rock miners, because they were too powerful, Podgor insists. No help would come from the Army Corps of Engineers, he says, which is supposed to safeguard wetlands but really acts as a rubber stamp for destroying them. There was nowhere to turn but to the rock miners, he believes.

"So if we are going to have rock mines and you are going to have a wellfield, what the hell are we going to do to protect those wells?" he remembers thinking. Podgor expanded on the idea through a newspaper article and conversations. One of the people he talked with was Paul Larsen, who arranged a meeting with the miners in 1990 at the Rinker company's office. At the time Podgor was director of the environmental group begun by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Friends of the Everglades. When the legislature established the Lake Belt committee, it mandated three seats to be filled by the environmental organizations Friends, Sierra Club, and Tropical Audubon.

Then the bottom dropped out.

Podgor found himself on the losing end of a power struggle within Friends of the Everglades. Ejected from the organization, he also forfeited his seat on the Lake Belt committee in mid-1996. "I think there is some animosity because I am not tactful," he admits. "I am an abrasive, fat bastard. While the rest of them were chasing tweety birds, I was working on the fundamentals of life for the people who live here."

For Podgor the final blow came this past January at the Everglades Coalition Conference, which environmentalists host every year. The coalition, at the prompting Barbara Lange, Everglades chair for the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, included in its conference document a section attacking the Lake Belt. Lange once was active in Friends of the Everglades and took Podgor's place on the committee when he was pushed aside four years earlier.

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