Since September 11, local politicians have made efforts to assure us that security at the county's water-treatment facilities has been dramatically increased. While certainly a prudent course of action, it ignores a far greater danger. The real threat to the county's water supply doesn't come from terrorists but from lobbyists and special-interest groups such as the rock-mining industry, which appears to be dictating policy inside the county manager's office.
New Times has obtained a copy of a draft county ordinance that would have assessed a 15-cent-per-ton fee on the rock miners, with the money going toward much-needed improvements at the county's water-treatment facilities. The proposal was crafted by the county's Water and Sewer Department (WASD) and enjoyed the support of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).
But after a July 23 meeting with a lobbyist for the rock-mining industry, County Manager Steve Shiver decided to reject the recommendations of his professional staff members and ordered them to abandon plans to present the ordinance to county commissioners for consideration. Commissioners were never informed of the proposed ordinance.
Why assess a fee on the rock miners? Because their industry poses a threat to our drinking water.
Miami-Dade County draws its potable water from a source known as the Biscayne Aquifer, an underground sponge of porous limestone that holds huge volumes of slow-moving water, which is pumped to the surface at various wellfields. Two of the largest wellfields are located in the northwest portion of the county. Because Miami-Dade relies on ground water, which is free of the types of contamination commonly found in lakes and rivers, its treatment facilities are not required to filter and clean the water as stringently as communities that rely on surface water.
Northwest Miami-Dade also is home to the rock-mining industry, which excavates between 35 and 40 million tons of limestone each year. The county, in fact, provides half the state's supply of the soft stone, used in concrete and road construction. As the limestone is dug out, underground water seeps into the pits, forming giant artificial lakes. This surface water then becomes vulnerable to contaminants. The danger is that as rock miners encroach upon the wellfields, water from the 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.
In 1993, for example, more than 100 people died and 400,000 became ill after Milwaukee's water supply was contaminated by cryptosporidium, a pathogen that causes severe illness similar to the deadly E. coli bacteria. Following the outbreak the federal government required municipalities like Milwaukee that rely on surface water to upgrade their treatment plants to filter out cryptosporidium and other dangerous organisms. But since Miami-Dade uses ground water, no such improvements were made at the county's treatment plants. If our water supply were to be contaminated by surface water from rock pits, however, local residents would be at risk.
"The rock pits create a habitat for these little critters," says Bill Brant, director of the county's water and sewer department. "Anyone who knows what happened in Milwaukee knows how serious this can be."
Brant, who only spoke to New Times after being confronted with the existence of the proposed ordinance, has dedicated much of his adult life to serving the citizens of Miami-Dade. He's worked at the county for more than 23 years and has been the director of WASD since 1998. Chief among his responsibilities is making sure the water supply is safe and free from contamination.
In recent years, Brant says, he'd become increasingly concerned with the rock-mining industry and its possible effects on our water supply. "I realized how close they were coming to our wellfields," he says. In some cases the distance is only a few hundred yards.
Brant believed the threat was significant enough to draft the proposed ordinance assessing fees on rock miners, revenue from which would be used to help upgrade the county's water-treatment plants. "We were looking for ways to protect our wellfields," he explains. "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 ground-water supply has been contaminated, then it will be too late."
The cost of purchasing and installing more-advanced filtration systems is estimated at roughly $70 million, according to Brant. Under the proposed ordinance, the rock miners wouldn't be asked to shoulder all the costs, just $30 million. Language contained in the ordinance says it all: "It is the intent of this [ordinance] to ensure that the county is able to continue to provide safe and high-quality drinking water to county residents from the John E. Preston and Hialeah water treatment plants in the event that rock mining activities result in those plants drawing a portion of water supplied to county residents from surface water...." The ordinance goes on to state, "Due to the increased risk of bacteriological contamination, such waters require additional treatment to render such waters compliant with drinking water standards."
Tony Clemente, Brant's predecessor as director of WASD, says contamination isn't the only concern. If state regulators or the federal Environmental Protection Agency determine that water from the rock pits is close enough to the wellfields to "influence" them, even if they aren't actually contaminated by a deadly bacteria, the county will be forced to update its facilities. "We are real close to that happening," Clemente notes. "From a public-health standpoint, the county would be better off updating the treatment facilities now."
The longer the county waits to act, the more costly it will be. Also, Clemente adds, there aren't many sources of money for upgrading the facilities. If the rock miners aren't willing to pay some of the cost, taxpayers will have to carry the burden through higher water bills.
As his staff drafted the ordinance, Brant alerted the rock miners, hoping they might be willing to work with the county on a plan to help pay for improvements to the water-treatment facilities. "They reacted very negatively," Brant sighs.
The rock-mining industry is notorious for playing political hardball. In 2000, after receiving numerous complaints from homeowners near the rock pits, the county commission tried to regulate how often miners could use blasting equipment. As county officials made a good-faith effort to mediate a compromise between the rock miners and homeowners, who claimed their houses were being damaged, the miners secretly went to Tallahassee and had the laws rewritten. As a result control of blasting was transferred from individual counties to the state fire marshal.
As soon as the rock miners learned of Brant's proposed ordinance, they dispatched one of their top lobbyists, Clifford Schulman of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, to quash it. On July 23 County Manager Shiver met with Schulman, Brant, and DERM director John Renfrow.
Schulman was adamantly opposed to the proposal. He argued it wasn't fair to tax the rock miners for a contamination problem that might never occur. "Bill Brant was being overly cautious," Schulman told me earlier this month. "He was concerned that something in the future might happen. We thought that was unfair and uncalled for. To pick on one industry like that isn't right." The rock miners are in favor of "continued study" on the subject as well as testing to make sure the county's ground water isn't contaminated or influenced by the surface water from the lakes created inside rock pits.
As soon as the July 23 meeting ended, Shiver decided to shelve the proposed ordinance even before it reached the commission.
Does Bill Brant still believe the ordinance is a good idea? When I pressed him on that question, he responded: "Yes. I still think it is necessary."
Steve Shiver is fond of boasting that as a manager his goal is to empower employees by involving them more significantly in the decision-making process. This episode shows once again that Shiver's words are hollow.
Rather than rely on the advice of his professional staff, Shiver decided to substitute his own judgment and side instead with a powerful industry and its well-heeled lobbyist. If the manager were truly interested in empowering his staff members, he would support their recommendations rather than try to micromanage their departments. Shiver's actions only served to undercut and weaken WASD and DERM in the eyes of an industry they must regulate.
I liked Schulman's characterization of Bill Brant. I want the man responsible for maintaining the safety of my drinking water to be "overly cautious." And I'd like to think our county manager would be equally cautious. Unfortunately Shiver is willing to gamble that there won't be a problem, at least not while he's around. (By way of comparison, Shiver's predecessor, Merrett Stierheim, openly opposed the rock miners' efforts to acquire from the Army Corps of Engineers the permits to expand their operations.)
It will be interesting to see how county commissioners react. The possible contamination of our water supply and the need for improving existing water-treatment facilities are major public-policy issues. Was this really a matter Steve Shiver should have decided by himself after one meeting with a lobbyist? Or was this a decision that should have been made by the county commission, as the elected representatives of the people? At the very least, shouldn't commissioners have been given the opportunity to discuss the proposal?
Barbara Lange, a Sierra Club official who has been studying the threats posed by the rock-mining industry, says she isn't surprised to learn that Shiver would run interference for a powerful group like the rock miners. "I hope this opens the eyes of some commissioners and that they deal with the issue before it becomes a crisis," Lange says. "I hope it acts as a wake-up call to the commission. At the next commission meeting, I hope one of them asks Bill Brant and John Renfrow to step forward and have them explain the threat to our water supply and answer questions about why they thought this ordinance was a good idea."
Lange argues that when it comes to guaranteeing the safety of the county's water supply, everyone is an environmentalist. "Politicians need to know that the public is watching," she adds. "People really care about their drinking water."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.