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.

"Once lost the rock in aquifer and the wetlands above it are irretrievable," the document warned. It also called on a moratorium on blasting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and a thorough study on acquiring the area exclusively for public use. (Such a course of action would almost certainly end in the courts.)

Both Podgor and Karsten Rist, a Tropical Audubon member on the Lake Belt committee who supports the miners, tried in vain to dissuade the coalition from including the section.

"I believe it is unwise to pick a major new fight with a powerful industry and the Florida Legislature at this time," Rist wrote in an e-mail to his fellow environmentalists. Rist feared the politicians in Tallahassee would penalize enviros by withholding money for Everglades restoration. (He says his complaints helped tone down the document.)

Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year
Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year
Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year
Steve Satterwhite
Rock miners are digging up Northwest Miami-Dade County at the rate of 300 acres per year

Podgor took it personally. "If you want to dance to that tune go right ahead, but you are basically shooting me in the head and the rest of yourselves in the foot," he says now.

Despite being shunted aside, he refuses to let go of his vision of shimmering reservoirs that would protect water and provide recreation. He still attends Lake Belt meetings, sitting in the audience. "You are in part defined by what you do or what you've done. I don't want to be remembered as the guy who started something like this, made so much noise about it, believed so deeply it would do good, and then walked away leaving it in the hands of people who hate it," he says. "That's my project; it's not theirs. Fuck them."

He is particularly angry with Lange. "She jumped into it and said, 'Let's milk them for a little more and let's see how far we can push [the miners] before they turn around and shoot us.'"


Barbara Lange moves the giant manatee costume off her Sierra Club office sofa. In recent months activists wearing the cloth manatee at public meetings have accosted politicians such as Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and others who support a commercial airport at Homestead Air Base. It's these sorts of guerrilla tactics, combined with aggressive legal assaults, that have made Lange and the local Sierra Club among the most effective environmental groups in South Florida.

The 47-year-old Lange begins rummaging through her Lake Belt files to retrieve comments from different government agencies on the draft Lake Belt environmental impact study. Although she has made herself the most vocal critic of the Lake Belt, she is far from alone. Lange finds a scathing letter from Gene Duncan, water-resource director for the Miccosukees.

"There is no proven technology to adequately mitigate for the numerous negative consequences of rock mining," Duncan writes. The hydrologist then attacks everything about the Lake Belt plan, from its blind spot on the impact of South Florida's runaway development that he believes mining encourages, to the ill effects of the plan on Everglades restoration. He thinks the county's drinking water will likely be polluted and the idea that this will be a recreational paradise is a "farce." Duncan ends rather anticlimactically that rock mining is not in the public interest.

Lange then pulls out a copy of the U.S. Department of the Interior's comments, which, in an exceedingly rare occurrence, mostly concur with Duncan's findings. Next come questions raised by the county Department of Environmental Resources Management. Finally, after rooting around, she finds Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Authority's fears about the Lake Belt. The agency's report ominously concludes that treating the county's drinking water on the surface, as might be necessary once the removed limestone exposes the aquifer, could cost tax payers about $235 million.

"Nobody has a deal as sweet as this, not even Big Sugar," Lange says about the rock miners. "If [county officials] were really concerned about the public and not their pension plans, they would stand up and say [we are] going to get screwed on this."

In 1996 Lange reluctantly filled Podgor's seat on the Lake Belt committee. At the time she was battling the efforts of a wealthy group of politically connected developers to streamline the airport in South Miami-Dade. With the help of a team of activists and lawyers, Lange managed to force a new environmental impact study, which has put the future of the airport in jeopardy. Faced with that massive task, she readily admits to having neglected the Lake Belt.

Lange also took note that her environmental colleagues like Podgor and Rist, whom she accuses of being in the embrace of the rock miners for so long he "suffers from Stockholm syndrome," were fully supportive of the plan. "I thought we were basically doomed," she acknowledges.

She didn't return to the issue until February 1999, when a draft of the Army Corp's environmental impact study came out. When she got a full idea of the scale of what was proposed, it horrified her. "When I saw the Army Corps of Engineers wasn't going to do anything but issue permits to wipe out more than 21,000 acres of wetlands, I just couldn't ignore it," she says.

The lateness of her objections frequently is noted by her adversaries. In retaliation for the threat of more mitigation, the rock miners are no longer pledging to give the newly created lakes to the state for free.

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