Blasting Down the House

As this year's legislative session came to a close, lobbyists for Miami-Dade County's rock-mining industry were up to their dirty tricks again. On March 15 an amendment was quietly added to House Bill 1535. It would have stripped local residents of the right to sue the industry for damage to their houses caused by blasting. Instead the rock miners wanted to force homeowners into settling any grievances through an administrative-review process heavily skewed in favor of the miners.

The political end run was identical to a sleazy maneuver the industry successfully employed two years ago. In 2000 the miners were feeling pressure from Miami-Dade County to act more responsibly. Faced with a growing number of complaints from residents near the rock pits in northwest Miami-Dade, the county commission tried to regulate how often miners could use blasting equipment. As county officials attempted to mediate a compromise between the rock miners and homeowners, the miners went to Tallahassee and had applicable laws secretly rewritten in the waning days of the legislative session. As a result oversight of blasting was transferred from individual counties to the state fire marshal.

This time around the rock miners were looking for a way to reduce the chances that residents whose houses are damaged by blasting will ever collect compensation.

The anti-homeowner amendment was introduced by Reps. Frank Attkisson (R-Kissimmee) and Doug Wiles (D-St. Augustine), neither of whom returned phone calls seeking comment regarding why they would introduce such an amendment. Because it was introduced in the final days of the session, there were no public hearings on the proposal, nor was it debated on the floor of the House by legislators.

Luckily for homeowners in Miami-Dade, Rep. Ralph Arza, a Republican who represents Miami Lakes and the surrounding area, had heard rumors that the rock miners were up to no good. Arza told me last week that lobbyists for the rock miners came to him at the start of the legislative session -- back in early February -- and showed him their plan to force homeowners to file an administrative claim for damages to their homes. Arza asked the lobbyists if they had shown their proposal to the residents who would be affected. They said they hadn't. Then Arza took a closer look at the proposal. He didn't like what he saw.

The plan, he said, placed an extremely high burden of proof on residents. Homeowners couldn't simply claim that blasting caused cracks in the foundations or walls of their houses. They would have to match each individual crack to a specific blast and would be required to identify the precise date and time of the blast and the quarry from which it emanated. If homeowners couldn't prove all that, not only would they lose their case, they would have to pay attorney fees for the rock miners as well as costs for the hearing and for any experts the industry would hire to discredit homeowner claims. "It was too severe," Arza said.

Once Arza made it clear he would not sponsor their bill, the lobbyists appeared to back off and give up. By the middle of March, however, Arza began hearing rumblings that the rock miners were back. Although still relatively new to Tallahassee, Arza knew how things operated. He suspected the miners would try to attach their proposal to an unrelated bill and hope nobody would notice -- just as they did two years ago.

In the closing days of a typical legislative session, hundreds of amendments are tacked onto bills and become law without most legislators even realizing it. "We just don't have time to read every amendment on every bill in those final days," Arza explained. "Even if you know it might be out there, finding an amendment like this is like finding a needle in a haystack. When we were in session I was scared to get out of my chair and go to the bathroom for fear they might attach the amendment to a bill while I was gone for a few minutes."

Last week Arza began scanning every bill even remotely related to mining. His determination paid off. He found the amendment tacked onto a bill dealing with growth management and urban sprawl. When he saw that one of the sponsors was Frank Attkisson, a fellow Republican for whom he campaigned last year, Arza asked why he was promoting a plan that would hurt Arza's constituents. "Frank told me he was doing it for a friend who was a lobbyist for the rock miners," Arza recounted. "The lobbyist asked him to carry the amendment and he agreed. That's the way things work sometimes."

Once he discovered the amendment, Arza alerted other members of the Miami-Dade delegation. On the next-to-last day of the session, Thursday, March 22, Arza successfully introduced his own amendment stripping the rock miners' plan from the bill. "To tack on an amendment at the last minute is unfair for everyone," he said. "I know the rock miners feel they are under fire in Miami-Dade and as an industry they've decided their only hope is to pass legislation like this in Tallahassee. But they are going about it the wrong way."

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."

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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