Blasting Down the House

Rock miners try to pull a fast one on local legislators

Arza doesn't oppose rock mining. He believes it's a critical business for the State of Florida. With the amount of roadwork being done statewide, he pointed out, it's essential to have an affordable source of limestone. But he is also aware the industry needs to be more accountable. "There are cracks in the tiles in my home," he said. "Do I know for a fact that those cracks were caused by the blasting? No."

Ultimately, Arza said, an administrative process for homeowners to file claims against rock miners is probably needed. "I'd like to see it, but you can't have a process written only by one side," he allowed. "We need to bring together the rock miners and the homeowners and the county and all the people affected by this. The problem is there's no trust."

State Rep. Ralph Arza heard rumblings that the rock miners were up to no good
State Rep. Ralph Arza heard rumblings that the rock miners were up to no good

The rock miners' actions last week in Tallahassee came at a time when they have been asking state, county, and federal officials for permits to continue destroying hundreds of acres of Florida's wetlands every year for the next ten years.

Those permits should be denied.

For the past year officials for various government agencies have been negotiating terms with the industry in the belief agreements can be crafted that will limit harm to the environment, safeguard our drinking water, and protect homes from needless damage. But given the rock miners' history, why would anyone be crazy enough to trust them? Repeatedly they have shown themselves to possess nothing but contempt for the residents of South Florida.

In conversations with county officials I've been told, "Don't worry. We're going to spell out everything in writing in the permits and we'll hold them to it." That's ridiculous. Before those permits are ever issued, I guarantee you the rock miners will have found a dozen loopholes they'll gleefully exploit. These people are weasels whose sole interest is profit.

Last month I raised questions about the potential risk rock mining posed to our drinking water and efforts by the county's water and sewer department to levy a fifteen-cent-per-ton tax on the miners, with the money earmarked for improvements to the county's water-treatment facilities. The measure capped at $30 million the amount rock miners would pay. Once that sum had been raised, the tax would automatically be rescinded.

Rock miners vehemently opposed the tax and were able to get a private audience with county officials, including County Manager Steve Shiver, who subsequently scuttled the plan. The proposal never even made it to the county commission for discussion. Commissioners only learned about it by reading New Times.

One of the questions I wasn't able to answer last month was the price of a ton of limestone. Given the outcry by the miners over the proposed tax, I was curious to know how that fifteen cents would affect the overall price of their product. "I don't know how much a ton of limestone costs," said Clifford Schulman, one of the miners' many lobbyists.

I asked a county staffer involved in the negotiations with the industry. He didn't know either. "I've asked that question," the staffer explained, "but I've never gotten a straight answer from anyone in the mining industry."

Imagine that. Rock miners being evasive. Unable or unwilling to provide a straight answer.

Fortunately, as a trained investigative reporter, I have at my disposal an arsenal of sophisticated techniques for unearthing such information. Last week I opened the phone book and looked up the number for Rinker Materials, the largest mining operation in Miami-Dade. I called, asked for the sales department, and when someone answered, I said, "Hi, I'm with Miami New Times. I was wondering, how much does a ton of limestone cost?"

The young man explained that the cost ranged from three dollars to eight dollars per ton depending on the quantity purchased and the quality of the rock. The finer the limestone is ground up, the more expensive it is. Mystery solved.

Now let's try a little math. The rock-mining industry excavates between 35 and 40 million tons of limestone each year in Miami-Dade County. At an average price of five dollars per ton, that comes to between $175 million and $200 million per year in revenue. Over the course of a ten-year permit that would mean income of about two billion dollars.

These guys are so blinded by greed they can't see that it would be in their long-term interest simply to give the county $30 million to help upgrade its water-treatment facilities and write it off as good public relations. Instead they'd rather fight. It's their nature to be obstinate and uncooperative. They are willing to spend a fortune on lobbyists but not a few cents to protect the citizens of a county that is making them rich.

The state, county, and federal government should deny them any new permits. Let the miners rape and pillage somewhere else. They've done enough harm to South Florida.

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