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

Better Lake Than Never?

The Marion 7820 Walking Dragline is a monster of a machine. Picture a crane on steroids attached to a truncated ocean tanker. When the dragline's boom is fully extended, the Marion wouldn't fit into Pro Player Stadium. It weighs more than four million pounds and rests on two 52-foot-long treaded shoes. This industrial titan may be mobile, but agile it is not; to drive this beast two miles takes twenty hours.

When fully operational the machine can draw on ten separate motors offering a total of 110,000 horsepower. The juice to run it comes from an extension cord thousands of yards long attached in this case to its own Florida Power & Light electrical substation. It's a special perk for the machine's owner, White Rock Quarries, which carries a monthly electric bill of more than $100,000, befitting a company that ranks number seven on the list of the nation's top stone-crushing operations.

To truly appreciate what the Marion can do, one must see it at work. Hanging from the boom is a huge metal bucket that could easily hold a pickup truck. The bucket swings at the end of giant chains. An operator sits in an imposing throne of a chair before a huge window. Using a system of levers, he repeatedly drops the bucket into the submerged water of the quarry and retrieves as much as two dump-truck loads of dripping, crushed rock. The dragline swings to the shoreline and the bucket deposits its cargo into an ever-expanding brownish mound. The rock is precrushed with dynamite. Working 24 hours a day, four days a week, the dragline excavates about 100 acres per year. One acre yields about 125,000 tons of rock.

Prior to being shipped to Miami in 1995, the Marion pulled coal, the original lifeblood of industrialism, from the strip mines of Kentucky. Today it feasts on limestone. The South Florida rock bonds exceptionally well with cement and has become a cheap, easy, high-quality material with which to build roads and houses.

All of Miami-Dade County's limestone and half of Florida's supply currently comes from one 89-square-mile area in Northwest Miami-Dade. Bordered by Krome Avenue on the west, the Dade-Broward line on the north, and Florida's Turnpike on the east, on maps the 49,700-acre tract looks a little like a perched bird with a beak that overlaps I-75 and a tail that touches Kendall Drive. The rock miners own 26,600 acres of this territory. Every year the area produces about 35 to 40 million tons of rock, turning roughly 300 acres into artificial lakes. (Like most of the county, here the water table is directly below the soil. As soon as the muck and rock are removed, the aquifer is exposed and lakes form.)

Dominated by four major rock miners and six smaller outfits, the region has become known over the past ten years as the Lake Belt. While still mainly just a vision for planners and miners, machines such as the Marion 7820 are quickly digging the Lake Belt into reality. At the current pace, by 2050 the Lake Belt will be mined out, transformed into a latticework of interconnecting water reservoirs, leaving South Florida with a new ecosystem and the need for an alternative source of limestone.

But like the open coal pits that litter Appalachia, poisoning its rivers and streams, the operation of this dragline might bring severe environmental consequences to Miami-Dade County that could cost future taxpayers a small fortune to fix. To retrieve the limestone, vital wetlands that filter pollutants out of the water, help flood control, and provide important habitat to a variety of endangered wildlife must be removed. Of perhaps even greater concern is that just a few miles from the quarry are two of the county's last pockets of clean drinking water: the west and northwest wellfields.

The vision for the Lake Belt articulated in government documents sounds much like a Chinese tea that promises to remedy everything from infertility to toothaches. The Florida legislature, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Army Corps of Engineers seem to believe the Lake Belt can enhance the water supply, maximize efficient recovery of limestone, promote the social and economic welfare of the community, create a sportsman's paradise, halt urban sprawl, protect the environment, eliminate nonnative plants, revive wetlands, and help restore the Everglades.

Not everyone is buying the magic cure. Critics argue the Lake Belt will do little more than temporarily mask the ill effects of rock mining. Most environmentalists reject the Lake Belt plan as potentially dangerous for the surrounding ecosystem and the water supply. They are not alone. Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Authority, Everglades National Park, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, to name only a few, have responded critically to a draft environmental study of the plan. Finally some homeowners are fearful that blasts from explosives used to crush the rock will crack their houses.

Despite the growing show of skepticism, the Lake Belt's journey into acceptance until now has been remarkably smooth. Its success over the past ten years can be attributed to political goodwill purchased with an avalanche of rock-miner cash, a toothless regulatory system, a split among environmentalists, and Paul Larsen.

The 59-year-old Larsen is a civil engineer by trade who came to rock mining in the late Seventies after representing developers in the bruising environmental battle over a resort on Florida's Marco Island. It was a time when the U.S. government was just beginning to understand the importance of wetlands, and a raft of new conditions was being required before developers could destroy the marshes. Larsen started an environmental firm to help companies navigate the new bureaucracy and soon found many of his clientele were rock miners who needed him to pull permits so they could continue their trade. The rock miners already had begun to purchase large chunks of historic Everglades in Northwest Dade beginning in the Sixties. In those days a massive effort to save the Everglades was still just a fantasy of a few activists.

In 1984 the state legislature passed the Warren F. Henderson Wetlands Preservation Act to safeguard natural areas by imposing mitigation requirements for destroying wetlands. The theory went that it was okay to obliterate wetlands as long as the developer restored them somewhere else. A year before an Army Corps of Engineers environmental study had concluded that rock mining could continue in Northwest Dade as long as the industry limited its activities to areas where there were heavy infestations of the exotic melaleuca tree, which the state desperately wanted to eradicate. Melaleuca, originally introduced to dry up the Everglades, grows quickly and has an insatiable thirst for water. When the Henderson act passed, the legislature in Tallahassee granted the rock miners a decadelong exemption to the new law. It was just one of a string of giveaways for the rock miners, who regularly contribute the maximum to political candidates.

In 1990, with four years left on their exemption, ten of Miami-Dade's rock miners formed a group called the South Florida Limestone Mining Coalition to try to safeguard the area for mining in the future and negotiate a single mitigation fee. The biggest among them were CSR Rinker, Tarmac Florida, White Rock Quarries, and Florida Rock Industries. All together the group owned 47 percent of the Lake Belt.

The rock miners' wants were simple and single-minded: Extract as much money from the area as possible. The incentive for mining was as strong as ever. The state Department of Transportation had implemented standards for road building that precisely matched the specifications for Miami-Dade County limestone. Before they continued to finance more infrastructure -- like the roughly $30 million White Rock spent on the giant Marion dragline -- the miners needed assurances.

"They have this huge investment," says Larsen, a slight man with protruding eyes who is sitting behind a cluttered desk in his Brickell office, the walls dominated by hydrological maps and a giant photographic print of an Everglades tree island. "That investment was justified based on presumptions of what would happen in the future."

The engineer pitched the miners a solution to their problems that not only would allow them to continue to extract limestone but would also cast the industry in the unlikely role of environmental savior. Larsen envisioned a Disney World of artificial lakes. The establishment of fringe wetlands around the lakes would placate regulators. Most of the area owned by the miners was infested by melaleuca anyway, though environmentalists argue it can still support wildlife. In 1992 the legislators created the Northwest Dade County Freshwater Lake Belt Plan Implementation Committee, made up of government regulators, miners, and environmentalists to develop a plan for the area. Finally in 1999, based on a complex formula, a law was passed in Tallahassee setting a fee of five cents per ton of mined rock to pay for all the wetlands destroyed.

As an added sweetener, the rock miners pledged to swap their holdings in a western tract of the Lake Belt area that abuts existing Everglades called the Pennsuco wetlands. The Pennsuco alone remained relatively unscathed by exotics like melaleuca. The miners say they are willing to sell 3700 acres of their land in the Pennsuco wetlands in exchange for cash and the rights to mine government-owned areas in the Lake Belt. (The government owns 16.6 square miles or about 10,600 acres in the entire Lake Belt.) If environmentalists objected Larsen would simply open their eyes to the alternative: the sprawling suburbia pushing into the Everglades across the Broward County line.

"In essence the miners are another land use other than subdivision, which [is] better for the people down the road," he insists.

To win the endorsement of outdoorsmen, they promoted the future lakes as a mecca for bass fishing. At the same time, they also offered them as reservoirs to safeguard Miami-Dade County's drinking water. The two ideas were in direct conflict with each other but with so much acreage in play, the miners believed they had enough room to promise something for everyone.

"These lakes provide a huge recreational opportunity for the community that has to be meshed with the competing interest of wellfield protection," acknowledges Larsen.

The final selling point for the rock miners came along unexpectedly as a gift from the Army Corps of Engineers, which was struggling with how to provide space for water storage to aid Everglades restoration. In the corps' plan, the lakes could be used to provide water for Everglades National Park during droughts.

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.

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.

"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.)

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.

Lange admits at this point in the process the Lake Belt could be almost impossible to stop. Still she hopes her efforts can save more of the wetlands and pressure the miners to pay more for destroying the wetlands.

Back in her Coconut Grove office, the activist saves her best for last, pulling out a letter she plans to introduce at the May 17 Lake Belt committee meeting (held monthly), of which she is now a member representing the Sierra Club. It's vintage Lange, playful with an underlying seriousness. "We object to the euphemism of a so-called Lake Belt plan," she writes in the letter. "What is actually being evaluated is an immense system of quarry pits that cause considerable adverse ecological effects and provide minimal, if any, ecological values."

Since 1996 the four major rock-mining companies involved in the Lake Belt have given more than $124,000 to candidates, parties, and political-action committees. The actual total is likely much higher, because the number does not include contributions from individuals. For example Paul Larsen himself has donated close to $7000. Some environmentalists believe there is more than a casual connection between the rock miners' ability to push the Lake Belt through Tallahassee and the generous support they bestow. Among the favorite recipients of the miners' financial largess are state Rep. Alex Villalobos and state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart. The two Miami-Dade County legislators regularly receive the maximum $500 donation from the companies.

"They have been enthusiastic about the plan," says Larsen of the two politicians. "They have been convinced, again all things considered, that this is good."

Villalobos says he liked the Lake Belt plan when he first saw it as a freshman representative in 1992, because everyone, including environmentalists, had agreed to it. "We got it after it was chewed and digested," he notes.

The representative insists he doesn't receive more money from the miners than anyone else.

Villalobos might be expected to have a special insight into rock mining. His father, José Villalobos, is a lobbyist for Rinker, the largest rock miner in the Lake Belt. The elder Villalobos is a liaison to a county blasting task force formed to investigate the complaints of angry homeowners over blasting by the miners. Villalobos sees no conflict. "What we did had nothing to do with the blasting issue," says the legislator.

But despite the cash, the rock miners might not be as invincible as Podgor and Rist seem to believe. Just ask Jane Gentile.

The North Miami-Dade real estate agent knew nothing about the Lake Belt, though she lived just 1.8 miles from its proposed boundaries. Like many North Miami-Dade residents, Gentile has felt the impact of blasting while inside her home. She does not necessarily attribute it to limestone mining, though. Her unincorporated neighborhood is known by its residents as Country Club Lakes, which underscores that just as much, if not more, blasting has come from developers excavating fill on which to build waterfront subdivisions than it has from mining.

Gentile first learned about the Lake Belt last November while reading e-mail advisories from her real estate association. Despite being a member of the local zoning board Community Council 5, until then it was on her radar as a hazy environmental plan that included drinking water safeguards. "Lake Belt, Karate Belt, what did I know about it? I'm a realtor." she laughs. "This stuff was way above my head."

That is until she stumbled upon the small legislative notice for an amendment passed by the legislature in June 1999. The new law forced all homeowners living within two miles of the boundaries of the Lake Belt to include an affidavit of disclosure when selling their houses. The affidavit notifies the buyers their new home is in close proximity to an area where dangerous explosives are being used. The punishment for not including the affidavit in home sales included civil and criminal misdemeanor penalties. A home buyer who did not sign the document could return the house up to seven years after its purchase. The new law affected more than 50,000 homeowners.

"It completely removes the miners from any liability for blasting," notes Gentile.

Representative Villalobos says he was unaware the language for the affidavit had been slipped into his 1999 bill for the Lake Belt, which among other things set mitigation fees for the miners. "[The affidavit amendment] was made in the Senate," he is quick to say.

Gentile and South Broward Realty Association president Bill Valdez claim Senator Diaz-Balart admitted to them he put the affidavit into the bill in the last two days of the session. Diaz-Balart acknowledges responsibility for inserting the amendment.

At a community council meeting shortly after reading the e-mail, Gentile had the opportunity to question someone from the South Florida Water Management District who was giving a presentation about the Lake Belt. In response county staff quietly passed out the affidavit to the board. Gentile says she leaped from her seat and began hollering. The zoning board quickly passed a unanimous resolution demanding repeal of the new law.

Gentile notified Valdez, who began to lobby aggressively in Tallahassee against the measure.

Today even Paul Larsen admits the affidavit was a mistake. "The miners may have suggested that, but it went too far," he says. "The affidavit inflamed people; it made them mad." He says the miners didn't anticipate the strength of the reaction against the affidavit and what was perceived as heavy-handed action by them. He notes that until now the miners, who sell their product wholesale, not retail, have never had to be sensitive to public perception.

"I don't think they did it intentionally to make anybody mad, but I think they are coming to the realization that they live in this community. You are part of the community, and you have to be receptive to [the] perception that they are pushing people around," he says.

Fortunately for homeowners, Gentile notes, both Villalobos and Diaz-Balart are running for election this year. Owing to term limits the two legislators are trying to exchange seats so they can remain in Tallahassee. In a rare victory and remarkable about-face, the two agreed to a bill passed this month repealing the affidavit requirement.

Gentile vows she's not finished. "I want to get the boundaries [of the Lake Belt] changed," she says.

Sierra Club chair Barbara Lange believes Gentile's success should be a lesson for her colleagues that the miners are not as powerful as they appear. "One woman took it upon herself to challenge the rock miners and managed to beat them," she says. "The environmentalists could learn something from her."

Officials from the Water Management District hope a final environmental impact statement on the Lake Belt plan will be released by the end of this month. The Army Corps of Engineers is expected by September to approve master permits allowing the miners to excavate rock throughout the area. The Lake Belt committee must okay a final and permanent Lake Belt plan by December 31, 2000. The legislature, county government, and the Water Management District would then presumably act on their recommendations.


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