Pollution Solution, Part 2

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.

"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.

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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