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?

The risks are real. As I noted last month, more than 100 people died and 400,000 became ill in 1993 after Milwaukee's water supply was contaminated by cryptosporidium, a pathogen that causes severe illness similar to the deadly E. coli bacteria. Following Milwaukee's outbreak, the federal government required municipalities that rely on surface water to upgrade their treatment plants to filter out cryptosporidium and other dangerous organisms. But since Miami-Dade uses groundwater, no such improvements were made at the county's treatment plants.

My column quoted Bill Brant, director of the county's water and sewer department, acknowledging that he was concerned by this threat. "The rock pits create a habitat for these little critters," he explained. "Anyone who knows what happened in Milwaukee knows how serious this can be." Addressing that concern, Brant had drafted an ordinance that would assess a fifteen-cent-per-ton fee on the rock miners, with the money earmarked for upgrading the county's water-treatment plants. "We were looking for ways to protect our wellfields," Brant told me. "What we were trying to do was anticipate a problem rather than waiting for a crisis to develop. If we wait until we find evidence that our groundwater supply has been contaminated, then it will be too late."

The cost of purchasing and installing more advanced filtration systems was estimated at roughly $70 million, according to Brant. Under his proposed ordinance, the rock miners wouldn't be asked to shoulder all the costs, just $30 million spread out over several years. (In the course of a decade the miners rake in somewhere around two billion dollars in revenue. Certainly $30 million didn't seem like a hell of a lot to ask for.)

Pizzi is angry that Shiver -- before rejecting Brant's proposal -- didn't even discuss it with the county commission. "Why were commissioners kept in the dark?" he asks. "Why was everything done in secret?"

Following my February column, commissioners were wondering the same thing. Barbara Carey-Schuler, Katy Sorenson, and Jimmy Morales asked the county manager and his staff to provide details of Brant's proposal and to address concerns about the safety of the community's drinking water.

During the February 26 county commission meeting Shiver, along with Brant and John Renfrow, director of the Department of Environmental Resource Management, declared they have no scientific evidence proving that rock mining poses an immediate threat to the water supply. The county officials explained they are about to commence a three-year study, along with a series of tests that will give them a better understanding of what the potential threats might be. In the meantime, they said, the rock miners have agreed to curtail their activity in the pits closest to the county's wellfields. "We, at this point in time, do not have any proof that lakes around the wellfield are actually causing a problem," Renfrow told commissioners. "The water is safe to drink and I don't know what else to tell you."

Shiver claimed he would never do anything that might threaten the water supply. "If I thought for a moment that the rock-mining industry was placing the health of the public in jeopardy, I would take every action to stop that activity," he said. "But nonetheless we don't have the science that says this is an issue of concern."

I don't believe Shiver, a proven liar. Nor do I trust the rock miners, who will be helping the county conduct its lengthy study. (Three weeks after this commission meeting, lobbyists for the rock miners slithered into Tallahassee and tried to sneak a new law through the legislature in the final days of the session. It would have denied homeowners in Miami-Dade the right to sue the industry for damages to their houses caused by blasting. Thanks to the diligence of state Rep. Ralph Arza the scheme was discovered and thwarted.) Given the sleazy nature of Shiver and representatives of the rock-mining industry, I can see why they get along so well.

Unfortunately the point of Brant's original proposal became lost in the discussion. He was simply doing his job, being proactive by identifying a potential problem and fashioning a precautionary solution. I realize in county government that's a rarity, but when it happens it should be applauded, not condemned. As Pizzi told me later: "Why do we have to wait until there are signs that our drinking water is contaminated before we act?"

When commissioners asked Shiver why the fifteen-cent assessment wasn't a good idea, he told them the industry didn't feel it was right to be taxed in such a manner. Shiver's comment prompted Commissioner Betty Ferguson to fire back: "It's not up to the industry to tell us what they want to do. It's up to us to make policy."

Ferguson was reminding Shiver of a fundamental principle of public service: He works for the citizens of Miami-Dade County and their elected representatives, not for special-interest groups like the rock-mining industry. Alas, Shiver seems incapable of comprehending that.

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