Pollution Solution, Part 2

If you were Steve Shiver, why would you meet with one lobbyist when you could meet with a bunch of them?

 CORRECTION: On February 14 New Times reported on a plan to protect Miami-Dade County's drinking water by levying a fee on the rock-mining industry. In the article, "Pollution Solution," New Times noted that County Manager Steve Shiver scuttled the proposal after meeting this past July with a particular lobbyist for the miners. In fact Mr. Shiver killed the plan after meeting with a roomful of lobbyists and executives from the rock-mining industry. New Times regrets the error.

Of all the responses to my February column about the potential threat to Miami-Dade's water supply posed by the rock-mining industry, by far my favorite was Shiver's admission that he didn't meet with just one lobbyist for the rock miners but rather with a gaggle of them. His artless candor sparked a new round of outrage.

Attorney Michael Pizzi has emerged as the rock miners' worst enemy
Steve Satterwhite
Attorney Michael Pizzi has emerged as the rock miners' worst enemy

"The more I hear about this meeting Shiver had last year with the rock miners, the more appalled I am," says Michael Pizzi, a community activist who has been fighting the rock miners for years. "The only people who were there, besides county staff, were lobbyists for the rock-mining industry. If they were going to have a meeting to discuss the safety of the drinking water and decide county policy toward the rock miners, why were the rock miners the only ones invited to attend? There wasn't a single environmental group there. Why not? And why didn't they invite any of the residents who live in the area of the mines? They never called me. I'm president of Citizens Against Blasting. I'm a member of the Miami Lakes Town Council. It's well known that I've followed this issue for years. Why wasn't I invited to make my views known?"

Pizzi says he has tried on numerous occasions to speak to the county manager but Shiver has never returned his phone calls. "I'm an elected official for the area," he points out. "People actually voted for me. Nobody voted for [rock-mining lobbyist] Cliff Schulman, but he gets all the access to the county manager he wants. This is why the citizens have no confidence in the county. Special interests are welcome at county hall, but not ordinary residents."

Michael Pizzi, however, is no ordinary county resident. For twelve years he was a parole officer for the federal government, during which time he kept track of some of the most dangerous criminals released from prison. "My caseload included members of organized-crime families and drug cartels," he recalls. The first rule Pizzi learned was that you could never allow yourself to be intimidated, which for the Brooklyn-born son of a U.S. Marshal wasn't a problem.

Pizzi is like a lot of guys I grew up with in Brooklyn: cocksure and defiant, your classic Italian-American adult male made famous by filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola. He's been in Miami fourteen years but hasn't surrendered an inch of his accent.

While working as a parole officer, Pizzi took night classes at the University of Miami law school. He graduated first in his class in 1995 and then spent a year as a law clerk for a federal magistrate. Since 1998 he's been with the downtown law firm of Bierman Shohat. He has a wife and two kids. Last year he was elected to the Miami Lakes Town Council.

Through all his years as a parole officer, and then as an attorney and politician, he says he has never confronted anyone or anything as fiercely ruthless as the rock-mining industry. "There is nothing like this industry and the stranglehold they have on government," he says.

In 1999 Pizzi formed Citizens Against Blasting, a group that is trying to hold the rock miners accountable for the damage their blasting has caused to hundreds of homes in northwest Miami-Dade. He has filed a class-action lawsuit against the miners on behalf of homeowners, the number of which could easily surpass a thousand. That case will face its first major court test this summer.

Pizzi called me recently to talk about the February column I'd written regarding the rock miners and their potential threat to our drinking water. The rock-mining industry excavates between 35 and 40 million tons of limestone each year from giant pits carved out of the wetlands in the northwest portion of the county. Half the state's supply of the soft stone, used in concrete and road construction, comes from Miami-Dade.

The limestone that enriches the miners happens to be located near the source of our drinking water, the Biscayne Aquifer. That source is actually an underground sponge of porous limestone holding huge volumes of slow-moving water, which is pumped to the surface at various wellfields.

Because Miami-Dade relies on groundwater, which is free of the types of contamination commonly found in lakes and rivers, the county's treatment facilities are not required to filter and clean the water as stringently as communities that rely on surface water.

But there is a potential problem. As the limestone is dug out by the miners, subterranean water seeps into the pits, forming immense artificial lakes. This surface water then becomes vulnerable to contaminants. As rock miners encroach upon the wellfields, there is danger that water from the vast pits will migrate toward the pumps and eventually be drawn into the county's system. Once that happens our water supply will be contaminated by whatever affects the surface water. And since the county's treatment facilities aren't designed to treat those microorganisms, the public could be exposed to major health risks.

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